Strike First


The electronic warfare officers on board the USS Oxford sat hunched over their consoles in a cool, dimly lit room lined with recording equipment. It was a cloudy, starless night with moderate easterly winds. The night shift had just taken over. Two decks above their heads, a tall mast pulled down radar signals from hundreds of miles around. With headphones pressed to their ears, the intelligence gatherers strained to hear the telltale whoops and brrs of the radars associated with the Soviet air defense system. Until now, the radars had been largely silent, except for short tests. If the radar systems were switched on for any length of time, it would mean that Americans planes flying over Cuba were at serious risk of being shot down.

The intelligence gatherers on board the Oxford were cogs in a gigantic information-processing machine. The bits and pieces of data they managed to collect--a radar intercept, an overheard phone conversation, an overhead photograph--were sent to secretive bureaucratic agencies in Washington bearing acronyms like CIA, DIA, NSA, and NPIC. The data was sifted, interpreted, analyzed, and processed in eyes-only reports with code names like PSALM, ELITE, IRONBARK, and FUNNEL.

The Cold War was an intelligence war. There were times and places when it was waged in the open, as in Korea and later in Vietnam, but for the most part, it was fought in the shadows. Since it was impossible to destroy the enemy without risking a nuclear exchange, Cold War strategists attempted instead to discover his capabilities, to probe for weakness. Military superiority could be transformed into political and diplomatic advantage. Information was power.

Occasionally, an incident took place that provided a glimpse behind the shadows of the intelligence war, as when the Soviets shot down the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Siberia in May 1960. As a result of the shootdown, and the subsequent interrogation of Powers by the Soviets, American photographic intelligence capabilities, known as "Photint," were widely understood. But words like "Elint," "Comint," and "Sigint" remained jealously guarded national secrets. "Elint" was shorthand for "electronics intelligence," primarily the study of radar signals. "Comint" was the acronym for "communications intelligence" "Sigint" signified the broader field of signals intelligence. In addition to the Oxford, listening posts for gathering Comint and Elint included the naval bases at Guantanamo and Key West and Air Force RB-47 planes that patrolled the periphery of Cuba recording radar signals, Morse code messages, pilot chatter, and microwave transmissions.

The last few weeks had been alternately exciting and frustrating for the hundred or so professional eavesdroppers aboard the Oxford, a converted World War II Liberty ship. From their regular operations area adjacent to Havana, they had helped map the SAM missile sites strung out along the coast and overheard Soviet fighter pilots sending messages in rudimentary Spanish with thick Russian accents. But their eavesdropping capabilities had been much reduced by an order the previous weekend to pull the ship out to the middle of the Florida Straits, at least forty miles from Cuba. The decision had been taken for security reasons. Except for a couple of Thompson submachine guns and a half-dozen M-1 rifles, the Oxford was practically defenseless. The United States could not risk her capture. A window into Cuban decision making shut down just as the crisis was heating up.

The gloom was particularly intense in the forward part of the ship, home to R Branch, which specialized in high-frequency microwave transmissions and Morse code signals. The Cuban microwave network had been installed by an American company, Radio Corporation of America, during the Batista period. Armed with a complete map of the network and technical details of the transmissions facilities, the eavesdroppers on board the Oxford were able to record and analyze some tantalizing communications traffic. Among the circuits they succeeded in breaking at least partially were the Cuban secret police, the Cuban navy, the police, air defenses, and civil aviation. For the trick to work, the ship had to be stationed between microwave transmission towers in the Havana area. The quality of the intercept fell sharply whenever the Oxford pulled back more than a dozen miles from the Cuban coast.

Prior to October 22, the Oxford had been making lazy figures-of-eight along the coast, usually well within sight of El Morro Castle, Havana's most visible landmark from the sea. Traveling at around 5 knots, the vessel would steam eastward for sixty or seventy miles, then head back in the opposite direction, repeating the pattern over and over. The Oxford was officially described as a "a technical research ship," conducting studies on "radio wave propagation," in addition to gathering "oceanographic data." The Cubans were not deceived. They saw the towering antennae on the stern and aft decks and concluded that the Oxford was "a spy ship," whose primary purpose was to scoop up their communications. The Cuban military sent out messages warning of the dangers of "loose talk" over the phone.

The Cuban navy played a continuous cat-and-mouse game with the Oxford. On one occasion, it sent patrol boats to photograph the spy ship. On another, a Cuban gunboat approached within a few hundred yards. The Elint operators could hear the fire-control radar on the gunboat emitting a series of beeps in search of a target. When the radar locked on to the target--the Oxford herself--the beeps became a steady tone. Up on deck, the crew saw Cuban sailors aiming heavy guns in their direction. After staging its mock attack, the gunboat veered away.

Stripped of its World War II fittings, the Oxford functioned as a giant electronic ear. The signals captured by the communications masts were broken down and piped belowdecks, where they were analyzed by teams of electronics engineers and linguists. Each specialty had its own traditions and lingo. The Morse code experts, for example, were known as "diddy chasers" because they spent their working hours transcribing dots and dashes. It was the "diddy chasers" who demonstrated that the Soviets were assuming control of Cuban air defenses. On October 9, they picked up evidence that the grid tracking system used by the Cubans to locate aircraft was practically a carbon copy of a system previously used by the Soviets.

Even after the Oxford pulled back, it was still able to pick up Soviet radar signals from the Havana area. Analyzing the signals was the responsibility of T Branch--a small, eighteen-man department that occupied the aft part of the ship. Four men were usually on duty in the Receiver Room, scanning known radar frequencies and switching on their recorders whenever they heard anything interesting. The most valuable information came from the surface-to-air missile sites that formed a defensive ring around Cuba. Used to shoot down Gary Powers, the V-75 SAM missile was the weapon most feared by American pilots. It operated in conjunction with two radar systems: a tracking, or target acquisition, radar known to NATO as "Spoon Rest" and a fire control radar known as "Fruit Set." The Spoon Rest radar would be activated first. The Fruit Set radar would only be switched on if a target was in sight or the system was being tested.

The Oxford had first detected a Spoon Rest radar in Cuba on September 15. It was evidently just a test because the radar, west of Mariel, was soon switched off. On October 20, T-branchers picked up signals from a Fruit Set radar. This suggested that the SAM missiles were fully checked out and could be launched at any time. The development was so important that the head of the Navy's cryptological agency insisted on seeing the evidence himself. That night, the Oxford put into Key West for thirty minutes so that Admiral Thomas Kurtz could retrieve the tapes.

The next big breakthrough came shortly after midnight on Black Saturday. The Oxford had just begun her slow loop eastward. The spy ship was now seventy miles off the coast of Cuba, too far to pick up the microwave signals, but close enough to detect radar signals. At 12:38 a.m., T-branchers picked up the whoop of an air defense radar from a SAM site, just outside Mariel. They turned on their recorders and got out their stopwatches, measuring the interval between the buzzing sounds and consulting a bulky manual that contained the identifying characteristics of all known Soviet radar systems, including frequency, pulse width, and pulse repetition rate. The manual confirmed what they already suspected. It was a Spoon Rest radar.

This time, the Soviets did not turn the radar off, as they had done previously when they were only testing the system. Soon, the Oxford was picking up Spoon Rest signals from SAM sites at Havana East (the site visited by Castro on October 24) and Matanzas, in addition to Mariel. The radar systems at all three sites were still active nearly two hours later when the National Security Agency sent out its first flash report. Since the spy ship was moving slowly down the coast, the T-branchers were able to take multiple bearings on the source of the radar signals and establish the precise locations of the SAM sites.

The activation of the radar systems coincided with the discovery of a major change in the organization of Cuban air defenses. NSA analysts noticed that Cuban call signs, codes, and procedures were replaced by Soviet ones in the early hours of Saturday morning. Commands were issued in Russian rather than Spanish. It looked as if the Soviets had taken over and activated the entire air defense network. Only the low-level antiaircraft guns remained under Cuban control.

There was only one possible conclusion: the rules of engagement had suddenly changed. From now on, American planes flying over Cuba would be tracked and targeted.


Nine time zones to the east, it was already midmorning on the Soviet missile testing range at Baikonur, in the arid plains of southern Kazakhstan. Boris Chertok was late getting up. The rocket designer had been working for weeks preparing the Soviet Union's latest space spectacular, a probe to Mars. He had been awake most of the night, worrying about the project. One launch had already failed after a rocket engine misfired. A second attempt was planned for October 29.

When he got to the rocket assembly hall, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Heavily armed soldiers had taken over the building, and were carefully checking the identities of anyone entering and leaving. Nobody was paying any attention to the Mars rocket. Instead, engineers were swarming around an unwieldy five-engined monster previously covered with tarps. Nicknamed the Semyorka--"the little seven"--the R-7 had won worldwide fame as the rocket that launched Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into orbit. But it was fast becoming obsolete. All that it was good for now was to deliver a 2.8-megaton nuclear warhead to wipe out New York, Chicago, or Washington. The Soviets had so few intercontinental ballistic missiles in service that they had to make use of every single rocket in the inventory, outdated or not.

The Mars probe was off, explained Anatoly Kirillov, commander of the Baikonur launch site, when Chertok finally caught up with him. Orders had arrived from Moscow to get a pair or reserve Semyorkas ready for launch. One missile had already been checked out, fueled, and mated with its warhead. It was standing on a launch pad at the other end of the cosmodrome. The second Semyorka would be ready to go as soon as the warhead was delivered from the special storage depot. When that happened, all civilian personnel would be "sent away," in case the rocket exploded on takeoff, as had happened before.

Chertok did a quick mental calculation. A 2.8-megaton weapon would destroy everything within a seven-mile radius of the blast, and spew radiation over a much larger area. There was nowhere safe to go near Baikonur. He had known Kirillov for many years and got on well with him, but he was disturbed by what was happening. He wanted to call Moscow and speak to someone in the leadership, even Khrushchev personally. The launch site director brushed him aside. It was impossible to reach Moscow on a regular phone. All communication lines were reserved for the military, in case the order came to go to war.

The rocket designer found himself wondering if his friend was ready to push the button, if ordered by Moscow. A nuclear conflict was going to be very different from the last war in which they had both fought.

"We aren't talking just about the death of a hundred thousand people from a specific nuclear warhead. This could be the beginning of the end for the entire human race. It's not the same as in the war, when you were commanding a battery and someone shouted 'Fire.'"

Kirillov thought about this for a moment.

"I am a soldier and I will fulfill my orders, just as I did at the front," he replied eventually. "Somewhere or other, there is another missile officer, not called Kirillov, but something like Smith, who is waiting for an order to attack Moscow or this very cosmodrome. So there is no need to poison my soul."

The Baikonur cosmodrome was just one island in a vast nuclear archipelago stretching across the Soviet Union. In the seventeen years since America exploded the world's first atomic bomb, the Soviets had made a frantic effort to catch up. Matching the United States nuclear weapon for nuclear weapon and missile for missile was the supreme national priority. The nuclear bomb, plus the ability to deliver it, was both the symbol and guarantor of the Soviet Union's superpower status. Everything else--the country's economic well-being, political freedoms, even the promised Communist future--took second place to the nuclear competition with the rival superpower.

In their pursuit of nuclear equality, Stalin and his successors had transformed large parts of the country into a military-industrial wasteland. The Soviet Union was dotted with top secret nuclear installations, from the uranium mines of Siberia to the nuclear testing grounds of Russia and Kazakhstan to the rocket factories of Ukraine and the Urals. But despite some impressive achievements, the Communist superpower remained a long way behind the capitalist superpower in both the number and the quality of deliverable nuclear weapons.

By Pentagon calculations, the Soviet Union possessed between 86 and 110 long-range ballistic missiles in October 1962, compared to 240 on the American side; in fact, the real figure on the Soviet side was 42. Six of these missiles were antiquated Semyorkas, which were so large and unwieldy that they had little military utility. Soaring 110 feet into the air, the R-7 relied on unstable liquid propellants. It took twenty hours to prepare for launch and could not be kept on alert for more than a day. Too bulky to be stored in underground silos, the Semyorkas were an easy target for an American attack.

The most effective long-range Soviet missile was the R-16, which used storable propellants. The slim, two-stage missile was designed by Mikhail Yangel, the inventor of the medium-range R-12 missile that had made its appearance in Cuba. Never has a missile system had a less auspicious beginning. The first R-16 to be tested, in October 1960, blew up on the launch pad at Baikonur, killing 126 engineers, scientists, and military leaders who had come to witness Yangel's moment of triumph over his rival, Sergei Korolev. The victims included the chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. But the disaster was hushed up and the problems ironed out. The Soviet Union began to mass-produce the R-16 two years later. A total of thirty-six had been deployed by the time of the missile crisis and were on fifteen-minute alert. All but ten of these missiles were based in silos.

The "missile gap" against which Kennedy had campaigned during the 1960 presidential election did indeed exist. But it was in America's favor, not Russia's--and it was even wider than American experts believed.


In Havana, it was still the middle of the night. Soviet generals and Cuban comandantes were at their command posts waiting for news of a U.S. airborne landing, which was expected from hour to hour. At Soviet military headquarters in El Chico, officers sat around talking, smoking cigarettes, and exchanging the occasional mordant joke. A report arrived after midnight that U.S. naval ships had been sighted east of Havana. Machine guns were distributed, but it was a false alarm. In the heavy autumn mist, a lookout mistook some Cuban fishing boats for an American invading force.

Fidel Castro was also wide awake, as was usual for him at this hour in the morning. As the minutes ticked by, he became ever more pessimistic about the chances of avoiding an American invasion. The historical analogy that troubled him most was Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Stalin had received numerous intelligence reports about a Nazi invasion, but he ignored them all. Fearing a provocation to trap him into an unwanted war, he refused to mobilize the Soviet armed forces until it was too late. Such shortsightedness had "cost the Soviets millions of men, almost all their air force, their mechanized units, enormous retreats." The Nazis reached the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. The homeland of world socialism was almost wiped out. Analyzing the state of the world that Saturday morning, Castro worried that "history would repeat itself." He was determined to ensure that Khrushchev did not make the same mistake as Stalin. He would send a personal message to Khrushchev to alert him to the danger and encourage him to stand firm. At 2:00 a.m., he had President Dorticos telephone Ambassador Alekseev to tell him he was coming over for "an important meeting."

The Soviet Embassy was located in the Vedado section of Havana, a leafy enclave of turn-of-the century mansions, Art Nouveau villas, and Art Deco apartment buildings expropriated from the Cuban elite. The neoclassical two-story mansion on the corner of B and 13th streets that now housed the embassy had previously belonged to a family of sugar barons who left Cuba shortly after the revolution. In addition to their offices, the ambassador and several of his top assistants also had apartments in the complex. Vedado was particularly magical at night when the dim streetlights cast long shadows through vine-covered porticoes and the scent of almond trees hung in the air.

The Cuban leader's jeep pulled into the sweeping driveway of the embassy, behind wrought-iron gates covered in wisteria. Castro asked the ambassador to take him to the bomb shelter beneath the embassy, saying he feared an imminent American air strike, even an invasion. He paced up and down, waving his long, bony hands in the air. A yanqui attack was "inevitable," he insisted. "The chances of it not happening are five in one hundred." He was calculating the odds, just like JFK.

He was full of complaints about General Pliyev and his staff. He told Alekseev that Soviet commanders lacked basic information about the American military buildup. They had only found out the details of the naval blockade a day after it came into force. They were accustomed to the classic rules of war, such as they had known in World War II, and did not understand that this was going to be a very different kind of conflict. The short distance between Cuba and America meant that U.S. planes would be able to destroy the Soviet missile sites with very little warning, even without using nuclear weapons. There was little Soviet and Cuban air defenses could do to prevent a devastating strike.

The way Castro saw it, a conventional war was likely to escalate very quickly into a nuclear exchange. As he later recalled, he "took it for granted that it would become a nuclear war anyway, and that we were going to disappear." Rather than submit to an American occupation, he and his comrades "were ready to die in the defense of our country." He had no problem authorizing the use of tactical nuclear weapons against American invaders, even if it meant poisoning Cuba for generations to come. He and other Cuban leaders understood very well that "we would have been annihilated" in the event of nuclear war. They would perish "con suprema dignidad."

As usual with Fidel, it all came back to dignidad. But there was also an element of political calculation in his preoccupation with death and sacrifice. His entire geopolitical strategy was based on raising the cost of an invasion of Cuba to the point of unacceptability to the United States. Accepting the unacceptable and thinking the unthinkable were key to his survival strategy. Nuclear war was the ultimate game of chicken. If Castro could convince Kennedy and Khrushchev that he was willing to die for his beliefs, that gave him a certain advantage. Since he was the weakest of the three leaders, stubbornness, defiance, and dignidad were his only real weapons.

It was impossible to tell with Castro where dignidad ended and political calculation took over. His overriding goal was ensuring the survival of his regime. This was the reason why he had accepted Soviet missiles in the first place. He had long since concluded that the United States was implacably opposed to his vision for Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was merely the forerunner of more serious attempts to get rid of him. His best hope of deterring an invasion was to place Cuba under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. Once nuclear missiles were installed and operating in Cuba, the yanquis would never dare invade.

On the other hand, Castro did not want to appear too indebted to the Soviet Union or leave the impression that Cuba was incapable of defending itself. So he wrapped his decision to accept Khrushchev's offer of nuclear missiles in a high-sounding justification. He informed Soviet envoys that he would accept Khrushchev's offer not because he was desperate for the protection provided by the missiles but to "strengthen the Socialist camp." In other words, he was doing Moscow a favor rather than the other way round.

Alekseev knew Castro better than any other Soviet official or foreign diplomat. Nicknamed "Don Alejandro" by the Cubans, he enjoyed extraordinary access to Fidel, first as a KGB agent and later as Soviet ambassador. But the Cuban leader remained for him an enigma.

On a personal level, Alekseev was under Fidel's spell. He regarded Castro as the reincarnation of his childhood political heroes who had ensured the triumph of the Russian Revolution. He admired his single-mindedness and enjoyed his easygoing informality. But he also knew from personal experience that the Cuban leader was quick to take offense. He would seize on a tiny detail and make a huge issue out of it. The idea of Communist Party discipline, which was everything for an apparatchik like Alekseev, mattered little to an autocrat like Castro. In dispatches to Moscow, the ambassador attributed Castro's "very complex and excessively sensitive" personality to "insufficient ideological preparedness." The Cuban leader was like a willful child, easily swayed by his emotions. Alekseev was unaccustomed to revolutionaries who hung crucifixes on their walls and invoked the power of the Virgin Mary.

Like his political masters in Moscow, Alekseev was willing to overlook Castro's ideological idiosyncrasies. Just as Fidel needed the Soviets, the Soviets needed Fidel. They had not protested in the slightest earlier that year when Castro purged a group of orthodox pro-Moscow Communists led by Anibal Escalante. Ideological purity was less important than the reality of political power. The way Alekseev saw it, Castro was "the main political force" in Cuba and the personification of the revolution. Without Castro, there probably would have been no revolution. "Therefore, we should fight for him, educate him, and sometimes forgive him his mistakes."

Alekseev, whose Spanish was good but not perfect, struggled to keep up with the torrent of thoughts pouring out of Castro in the predawn hours of Saturday morning. One of his assistants jotted down a few phrases in Spanish and handed the paper to another aide for translation into Russian. But they had to begin all over again after Castro expressed unhappiness with the draft.

Fidel was having difficulty articulating exactly what he wanted Khrushchev to do. At times, it sounded as if he wanted his Soviet allies to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. At other times, he seemed to suggest that they should use nuclear weapons in self-defense if Cuba was attacked. As one draft followed another into the burn bin, Alekseev went to the code room and dictated a holding telegram:






3:35 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:35 A.M. MOSCOW)

By Soviet standards, the nuclear test planned for the morning of October 27 was a relatively small device, with the explosive power of around twenty Hiroshima-type bombs. Like most Soviet airborne tests, it would be conducted at Novaya Zemlya, high above the Arctic Circle. An appendix-shaped pair of islands roughly the size of Maine, Novaya Zemlya was a perfect spot for atmospheric testing. The native population of 536 Eskimos had been resettled on the mainland after 1955, their places taken by military personnel, scientists, and construction workers.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States had conducted hundreds of nuclear tests since the explosion of the first atomic bomb on July 16,1945. The dawning of the nuclear age had been announced by a flash of brilliant light across the desert of New Mexico followed by the formation of an expanding mushroom cloud. For one eyewitness, it was "the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you." The father of the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, was reminded of the line in Hindu scripture from the God Vishnu: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Everybody was aware that "a new thing had just been born."

In the seventeen years since that first test, named "Trinity" by Oppenheimer, the secret of Armageddon had spread from America to Russia to Britain to France. More and more countries were clamoring to join the nuclear club. During a presidential election debate with Richard Nixon in October 1960, Kennedy worried that "ten, fifteen, or twenty nations...including Red China" would possess the bomb by the end of 1964. But that fear did not prevent him from vigorously competing with the Soviet Union to develop ever more destructive types of nuclear weapons.

The two superpowers had agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958. But Khrushchev ordered a resumption of Soviet tests in September 1961, brushing aside the objections of scientists like Andrei Sakharov who had come to regard atmospheric testing as "a crime against humanity." Every time the Soviet Union or the United States exploded a nuclear bomb above ground, the air was poisoned for future generations. Sakharov pointed out that the radiation released by a big explosion--around 10 megatons--could lead to the deaths of a hundred thousand people. Such concerns meant little to Khrushchev, who argued that the Soviet Union was behind in the nuclear arms race and needed to test in order to catch up. "I'd be a jellyfish and not Chairman of the Council of Ministers if I listened to people like Sakharov!" he fumed.

"Fucked again," exploded Kennedy, when he heard the news. He responded by ordering a resumption of American tests in April 1962. By October, the two superpowers were engaged in a frenetic round of tit-for-tat nuclear testing, detonating live bombs two or even three times a week while preparing to fight a nuclear war over Cuba. They had gone beyond mere saber-rattling. Their threats to use the weapons were backed up by weekly--sometimes daily--practice demonstrations of their destructive power.

Since the beginning of October, the United States had conducted five tests in the South Pacific. During the same period, the Soviet Union exploded nine nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, most of them at Novaya Zemlya. The weather on Novaya Zemlya had taken a sharp turn for the worse at the beginning of October. There were blizzards and snowstorms practically every day, and only two to three hours of faint daylight, the best time for an airdrop. Technicians had to wade through deep snow-drifts to install cameras and other recording devices prior to a test. They left the equipment in thick metal canisters inside concrete blockhouses a few miles from the epicenter near Mityushikha Bay. When they returned after the test to collect the "samovars," the frozen tundra had become an ashtray, with smoke rising from the blackened rocks.

On the morning of Black Saturday, a Tu-95 "Bear" heavy bomber carrying the latest Soviet test device took off from Olenye Airfield on the Kola Peninsula. It headed northeast, across the Barents Sea, into what was already twilight in these northern latitudes. An observation plane tagged along to record the scene. To confuse American intelligence, both planes emitted false radio signals during the six-hundred-mile flight to the drop location. Fighter-interceptor jets patrolled the airspace around Novaya Zemlya to scare away U.S. spy planes.

"Gruz poshyel," reported the pilot of the Bear, as he passed over the drop zone and banked steeply away. ("The cargo has gone.")

The 260-kiloton bomb floated gracefully down to earth on a billowing parachute. The crew of the two bombers donned their tinted goggles and waited for the flash.


Captain Charles W. Maultsby wished he were somewhere else. He could have been racking up combat experience over Cuba like many of his fellow U-2 pilots. Or he might have been sent somewhere warm, like Australia or Hawaii, where the Wing also had operating locations. Instead, he was spending the winter in Alaska. His wife and two young sons were living on an Air Force base in Texas.

He had tried to get some rest before his long flight to the North Pole, but had only managed a couple of hours' fitful sleep. Pilots had traipsed in and out of the officers' quarters all evening in their heavy snowboots, laughing and slamming doors. The more he tried to sleep, the more awake he felt. In the end, he gave up and went down to the operations building, where there was a vacant cot. He set his alarm for 8:00 p.m., four hours before takeoff.

The mission was to collect radioactive samples from the Soviet nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya. Compared to flying a U-2 over hostile territory and taking photographs of missile sites, the assignment lacked glamour. The participants in "Project Star Dust" did not usually fly anywhere near the Soviet Union. Instead, they flew to some fixed point, like the North Pole, to inspect the clouds that had drifted up there from the testing site, more than one thousand miles away. They collected the samples on special filter paper, which were mailed off to a laboratory for analysis. Often there was nothing, but sometimes, when the Soviets had conducted a big test, the Geiger counters clicked away furiously. Out of forty-two missions already flown in October from Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks in central Alaska, six had returned with radioactive material.

Maultsby was used to the routine. As the pilot of a single-seater plane, he would be on his own for nearly eight hours. He had plotted the route ahead of time with navigators. For most of the way, he would navigate by the stars, with the help of a compass and sextant, like the seamen of old. A search and rescue team, known as "Duck Butt," would tag along for part of the trip, but there was little they could do if something went wrong. It was impossible for them to land on an icecap. If he had to bail out near the North Pole, he would be alone with the polar bears. "I wouldn't pull the ripcord," was the best advice they could give him.

The preflight ritual was always the same. After waking up from his nap, he went to the officers' mess for a high-protein, low-residue breakfast of steak and eggs. The idea was to eat something solid that would take a long time to digest, avoiding trips to a nonexistent bathroom. He changed into long underwear, put on a helmet, and started his "pre-breathing exercises," inhaling pure oxygen for one and a half hours. It was important to expel as much nitrogen as possible from his system. Otherwise, if the cabin depressurized at seventy thousand feet, nitrogen bubbles would form in his blood, causing him to experience the bends, like a deep-sea diver who comes to the surface too quickly.

Next, he climbed into his partial-pressure flight suit, which had been specially cut to his 150-pound frame. The suit was designed to expand automatically in response to a sharp loss of cabin pressure, forming a corset around the pilot and preventing his blood from exploding in the rarefied air.

A half hour before takeoff, he was attached to a walk-around oxygen bottle and transported to the plane in a van. He settled into the cramped cockpit and strapped himself into the ejection seat. A technician hooked him up with the internal oxygen supply, and connected various straps and cables. The canopy was closed above him. Neatly sewn into the seat cushion was a survival kit, which included flares, a machete, fishing gear, a camp stove, an inflatable life raft, mosquito repellant, and a silk banner proclaiming, in a dozen languages, I am an American. A pamphlet promised a reward to anyone who helped him.

Maultsby's compact build--he was only five foot seven--was a plus for a U-2 pilot. The cockpit was exceptionally cramped. To build a plane capable of soaring to a height of fourteen miles, the designer, Kelly Johnson, had ruthlessly cut back on both the weight and size of its fuselage. At one point, he vowed to "sell my own grandmother" for another six inches of precious space for an extra-long camera lens. He dispensed with many of the features of a modern airplane, such as conventional landing gears, hydraulic systems, and structural supports. The wings and tail were bolted onto the fuselage rather than being held together with metal sheets. If the plane was subjected to too much buffeting, the wings would simply fall off.

The U-2 had many other unique design features, in addition to its flimsy construction. To gain lift at high altitude, the plane needed long, narrow wings. Maultsby's plane was eighty feet wide wingtip to wingtip, nearly twice the distance from nose to tail. The willowy wings and light airframe allowed the plane to glide for up to 250 miles if it ever lost power from its single engine.

Flying this extraordinary airplane required an elite corps of pilots, men who were physically and mentally equipped to roam the upper reaches of earth's atmosphere at a time when manned space flight was still in its infancy. A U-2 pilot was a cross between an aeronaut and an astronaut. To be selected for the program, he needed to demonstrate a combination of athleticism, intellect, and utter confidence in his own abilities. Training was carried out at "the ranch," a remote airstrip in the Nevada Desert. Also known as "Area 51," the ranch was already becoming notorious as the site of numerous alleged UFO sightings, most of which were likely sightings of the U-2. Seen from below, with the sun glinting off its wings, the high-flying spy plane could be mistaken for a Martian spacecraft.

At midnight Alaska time--4:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time--Maultsby got the thumbs-up from his mobile control officer. He roared down the runway, pulling the control stick that gave the plane lift. The pogos--sticks with auxiliary wheels that prevented the U-2's long wings from scraping the ground--dropped away. The flimsy plane soared into the night sky at a steep angle like some exotic black bird.

A U-2 pilot needed to combine two contradictory qualities. To sit strapped into an uncomfortable ejector seat for up to ten hours, he had to transform his body into "a vegetable," shutting down his normal functions. At the same time, his brain had to operate at full speed. As Richard Heyser, the pilot who discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba, liked to say: "Your mind never relaxes. If it does, you're dead."

Maultsby was about an hour out of Eielson when he flew over the last radio beacon on his way to the North Pole. It was on Barter Island, on the northern coast of Alaska. From now on, he would rely on celestial navigation to keep him on track. The Duck Butt navigators wished him luck and said they would "keep a light on in the window" to guide him back on his return six hours later.


In Moscow, eleven time zones ahead of Alaska, Nikita Khrushchev had just convened another meeting of the Soviet leadership. "They're not going to invade now," Khrushchev told the Presidium. Of course, there was "no guarantee." But an attack on Cuba seemed "unlikely" at a time when the Americans were talking to the United Nations about a possible solution to the crisis. The very fact that Kennedy had responded to proposals by U Thant, the United Nations secretary-general, suggested that he was not about to invade Cuba just yet. Khrushchev was beginning to doubt the president's "bravery."

"They had decided to settle matters with Cuba and they wanted to put the blame on us. But now, it seems, they are reconsidering that decision."

Khrushchev's mood had changed many times during the course of the week. He seemed to have a different opinion about the likelihood of an American attack on Cuba every time he met with the Presidium members in the wood-paneled conference room down the corridor from his office. News that the Americans had discovered the missiles had filled him with alarm. Kennedy's decision to go with a blockade rather than an air strike relieved his worst fears. Reports that the Strategic Air Command had declared DEFCON-2--one step short of nuclear war--produced another fit of anxiety. But nothing happened, and he was now feeling a little more relaxed. The immediate pressure was subsiding.

His responses to the crisis reflected his shifting moods, which were in turn shaped by the signals he received from Washington, official and unofficial. His intelligence folder on Friday morning included the distressing news that Kennedy had decided to "finish with Castro" once and for all. The report was based on flimsy evidence: overheard snippets of a conversation at the National Press Club in Washington and a lunch between an American reporter and a Soviet diplomat. But it helped persuade Khrushchev to send his conciliatory-sounding message to Kennedy about untying "the knot of war."

After another night pondering his options, he believed there was still some time left for negotiation. The Friday message had been vaguely worded, suggesting only that a U.S. noninvasion guarantee would remove "the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba." He knew he would probably end up withdrawing the missiles, but he wanted to salvage what he could in retreat. The most obvious concession to demand in return was the withdrawal of American missiles in Turkey.

Khrushchev had good reasons to believe that Kennedy might consider such a compromise. Early on in the crisis, Soviet military intelligence had reported that "Robert Kennedy and his circle" were willing to trade U.S. bases in Turkey and Italy for Soviet bases in Cuba. The information was considered authentic because it came from an agent named Georgi Bolshakov, who had served as a Kremlin backchannel to Bobby Kennedy. More recently, Khrushchev's interest had been piqued by a syndicated column by Walter Lippmann calling for a Cuba-Turkey missile swap. The Soviets knew the columnist had excellent sources in the Kennedy administration. It seemed unlikely that he was speaking only for himself. Khrushchev understood the Lippmann column as an unattributable feeler from Washington.

"We won't be able to liquidate the conflict unless we satisfy the Americans and tell them that our R-12 rockets are indeed there," he told those meeting in the Presidium. "If we can get them to liquidate their bases in Turkey and Pakistan in exchange, then we will have won."

Other Presidium members expressed approval as Khrushchev dictated the text of another message to Kennedy. As usual, he dominated the meeting with his forceful personality. If the others had concerns about the way he was handling the crisis, they kept their objections to themselves. Unlike his rambling letter of the previous day, Khrushchev's latest message outlined explicit terms for a deal.

You are worried about Cuba. You say it worries you because it is only ninety miles across the sea from the shores of the United States. However, Turkey is next to us. Our sentinels are pacing up and down and watching each other. Do you believe you have the right to demand security for your country and the removal of weapons that you consider to be offensive, while not recognizing the same right for us?...

This is why I make this proposal: We agree to remove those weapons from Cuba that you categorize as offensive. We agree to state this commitment in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a statement to the effect that the United States, bearing in mind the anxiety and concern of the Soviet state, will evacuate its analogous weapons from Turkey.

Under Khrushchev's proposal, the United Nations would have responsibility for ensuring implementation of the deal through on-site inspections. The United States would promise not to invade Cuba. The Soviet Union would give a similar pledge to Turkey.

This time, Khrushchev was unwilling to entrust his message to time-consuming diplomatic channels. He wanted to get it to Washington as quickly as possible. He also calculated that publication of a reasonable-sounding proposal would buy him some extra time, since it would put Kennedy on the defensive in the battle for international public relations opinion. The message would be broadcast on Radio Moscow at 5:00 p.m. local time, 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning in Washington.

In the meantime, Khrushchev wanted to make sure a war did not begin by mistake. He had little choice but to approve the measures taken by General Pliyev the previous evening and reported overnight to Moscow, including the activation of air defenses. But he also moved to strengthen Kremlin control over the nuclear warheads. He ordered the return of the R-14 warheads to the Soviet Union aboard the Aleksandrovsk. And he had his defense minister send an urgent cable to Pliyev removing any ambiguity about the chain of command for nuclear weapons:

It is categorically confirmed that it is forbidden to use nuclear weapons from the missiles, FKRs, and Lunas, without approval from Moscow. Confirm receipt.

One big problem remained: selling a Cuba-Turkey deal to Castro. The proud and hypersensitive Fidel was likely to react angrily to any negotiations behind his back that involved removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, particularly if he heard about the proposal first on the radio. Khrushchev entrusted the job of calming Castro down to Alekseev. The ambassador was instructed to depict Khrushchev's message to Kennedy as a shrewd attempt to forestall the threatened U.S. invasion of Cuba. The Americans "know very well that they would be branded as aggressors if they staged an intervention under the present circumstances. They would be shamed before the entire world as enemies of peace who did not hesitate to copy the worst examples of Hitlerite barbarity."

As Khrushchev was dictating his message to Kennedy, thousands of jeering Muscovites were protesting in the street outside the U.S. Embassy. They waved banners with officially approved slogans like "Shame on the Yankee aggressors!" "Away with the Blockade!" and "Cuba yes, Yankee no!" Some protesters even got on top of stalled trolleybuses along the Sadovoe ring road to shake their fists at the embassy and hurl stones and ink bottles, shattering a few windows.

"Who gives you the right to stop ships on the high seas?" a demonstrator asked an American reporter who was circulating in the crowd. "Why don't you just leave Cuba alone?" A World War II veteran suggested that both sides simply give up all their military bases "and we'll be friends as we were in the war." A woman with a drawn face complained that Americans did not understand war because their country had never been invaded. "If you had experienced war the way we did, you would not always threaten us with war," she argued.

Like all such "spontaneous" demonstrations in Moscow, the protest was a well-organized affair. A U.S. diplomat noted that truckloads of schoolchildren were unloaded in a nearby street and handed signs denouncing colonialism and imperialism. Hundreds of troops moved into side streets near the embassy to make sure that the demonstration did not get out of hand. The protesters disbanded promptly on an order from the police after exactly four hours, and water-spraying trucks immediately cleaned the road in front of the embassy.

Prior to Castro's rise to power, most Russians would have had trouble finding Cuba on a map. In less than five years, the country had been transformed in the minds of the Soviet public from a faraway Caribbean island to the front line of the Cold War. Soviet propagandists referred to Cuba as "the island of freedom." Newspapers carried glowing articles about the social revolution under way in Cuba and the evil imperialists who were trying to restore the corrupt Batista regime. Portraits of Castro and Che Guevara hung in millions of homes. Russians who did not speak a word of Spanish knew the meaning of "Patria o muerte," just as their parents had thrilled to the phrase "No pasaran" during the Spanish Civil War.

Castro's revolution captured the imagination of many Russians because it reminded them of their own revolution before it became sclerotic. Cuba, in the words of a Soviet intellectual, was a "training ground on which we could replay our own past." Castro and his "bearded ones" were more attractive leaders than the elderly bureaucrats who looked down at the Soviet masses from the portraits on Red Square. There was a delicious irony to the official glorification of long-haired revolutionaries like Che Guevara at a time when Soviet officials looked askance at young people with long hair. In Cuba, everything was reversed. The higher the official, the longer the beard. Ordinary Russians were also impressed by Castro's habit of delivering six-hour speeches without any notes. In the Soviet Union, appearances by top officials were usually carefully scripted.

Soviet propagandists attempted to tap into the romanticism of the Cuban revolution while channeling it in constructive directions. Castro's exploits, and his defiance of the Yankees, were celebrated in the official media. Most Soviets knew the words to "Kuba, lyubov' moya" ("Cuba, my love"), a song glorifying los barbudos set to martial music and Caribbean drum rolls:

Kuba, lyubov' moya.

Island of purple dawn

The song flies over the ringing planet

Kuba, lyubov' moya.

Do you hear the firm step?

The barbudos are marching

The sky is a fiery banner

Do you hear the firm step?

The popular admiration for Cuba was tinged with wariness and skepticism, however. Decades of propaganda had left ordinary Russians suspicious of anything they read in the newspapers. American exchange students at Moscow State University were "amused, disturbed and flabbergasted" at the nonchalance displayed by their Russian friends about the threat of nuclear war. Accustomed to tuning out official rants about the sins of the imperialists, Russian students reacted as if the crisis was not all that serious. At a meeting at the university, they warmly applauded a Cuban student leader who gave an emotional speech in Russian. But they paid little attention to the canned remarks of their own professors.

A small but growing number of Russians were privately questioning the cost of "fraternal assistance" to faraway places. On Saturday morning, the Soviet Defense Ministry reported to Khrushchev that the low-level grumbling had even spread to the armed forces. A sailor on a torpedo boat in the Arctic Ocean had expressed doubt that the Cuban adventure would do anything to promote Soviet "state interests." An air force enlisted man asked, "What do we have in common with Cuba, why are we being dragged into this fight?" A soldier in an antiaircraft unit complained about a temporary halt to discharges because of the Cuban crisis.

More ominously, just four months after the bread riots in Novocherkassk brutally suppressed by Pliyev's troops, some people were asking why it was necessary for Mother Russia "to feed everybody else." There was a surplus of Cuban sugar in the stores, and a deficit of Russian bread. Around bare kitchen tables, sullen Soviets were singing the rousing tune of "Kuba, lyubov' moya" to subversive new lyrics:

Cuba, give us back our bread!

Cuba, take back your sugar!

We're sick of your shaggy Fidel.

Cuba, go to hell!


Castro had been at the Soviet Embassy in Havana for nearly three hours, and was still having difficulty composing his letter to Khrushchev. Don Alejandro was having a hard time understanding Fidel's "quite intricate phrases." Eventually, he could restrain himself no longer and blurted out the obvious question:

"Do you want to say that we should deliver a nuclear first strike against the enemy?"

That was much too blunt for the Jesuit-trained Castro.

"No, I don't want to say it directly. But under certain conditions, without waiting to experience the treachery of the imperialists and their first strike, we should be ahead of them and erase them from the face of the earth, in the event of their aggression against Cuba."

The drafting session resumed. As the first rays of sun appeared over the capital, Castro finally dictated a version that satisfied him.

Dear Comrade Khrushchev,

Analyzing the situation and the information that is in our possession, I consider that an aggression in the next 24-72 hours is almost inevitable.

There are two possible variants of this aggression:

1. The most likely is an attack from the air against certain targets with the limited goal of their destruction;

2. Less likely, but still possible, is a direct invasion of the country. I think this variant would require a large number of forces, and this might deter the aggressor. In addition, world public opinion would greet such aggression with indignation.

Rest assured that we will firmly and decisively oppose any type of aggression. The morale of the Cuban people is extremely high, and they will meet the aggressor heroically.

Now I would like to express my strictly personal opinion on these events.

If the aggression takes the form of the second variant and the imperialists attack Cuba with the purpose of occupying it, the danger facing all of mankind...would be so great that the Soviet Union must in no circumstances permit the creation of conditions that would allow the imperialists to carry out a first atomic strike against the USSR.

I am saying this because I think that the aggressive nature of the imperialists has reached an extremely dangerous level.

If they carry out an attack on Cuba, a barbaric, illegal, and immoral act, then that would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger for ever through a legal right of self-defense. However harsh and terrible such a decision would be, there is no other way out, in my opinion.

The letter rambled on for another three paragraphs. It was signed: "with fraternal greetings, Fidel Castro."

For the FKR cruise missile convoy that had been ordered to the launch position west of Guantanamo Naval Base, it was turning into a chaotic and disastrous night. The missile launchers and their support vehicles only had a dozen miles to travel, but the road was unpaved and bumpy, and ran alongside deep ravines. Shaken by the deaths of their two comrades, the drivers had to remain extremely vigilant to avoid another accident. It took the convoy another hour to reach the tiny village of Filipinas.

The launch position was in a clearing in the forest just beyond the village, next to a little stream. The terrain had already been prepared by field engineers, who had spent a week removing tree stumps and laying down gravel for the heavy vehicles. Antiaircraft guns guarded the approaches. The area was sealed off with barbed wire and guarded by Soviet troops. Cuban troops were responsible for the outer perimeter.

As the trucks approached a Cuban guard post a few hundred yards from the launch site, a nervous voice rang out through the darkness.


The Russian soldiers at the front of the convoy shouted out the password. But there was evidently some mistake. Instead of allowing the trucks to proceed, the Cuban guards replied with a volley of rifle fire.

It took another hour, and a lot of swearing in Russian and Spanish, for the cruise missile unit to sort out the confusion over the password. One of the Soviet officers, who spoke pigeon Spanish, eventually managed to communicate with the trigger-happy Cubans. The convoy of trucks, jeeps, and electronic vans rumbled into the cleared field next to the stream.

"Razvernut'sya!" ordered Major Denischenko. ("Deploy!")

The trucks moved into position around the launch site. The nuclear-armed cruise missiles sat on their transport trailers, resting on long metal rails. They looked like large model airplanes, about twenty-five feet long, with a twenty-foot wingspan. Electronic vans were parked nearby. If the order was given to fire, a solid-fuel rocket would propel the snub-nosed missile off the rails into the air. Twenty-five seconds later, a jet engine would take over. The radio operator would guide the missile to its target from his post in one of the electronic vans. The missile would cover the fifteen-mile distance to the American naval base in less than two minutes, screaming over the rock-strewn landscape at a height of around two thousand feet. When it was above the target, the operators would give another signal, switching off the engine and sending the missile into a dive. The nuclear warhead was programmed to explode a few hundred feet above the ground, to cause maximum destruction.

A launch team consisted of an officer and five enlisted men: a senior aviation mechanic, two electricians, a radio operator, and a driver. Once the missile had been deployed to the start position, the remaining preparations took about an hour. In theory, the missiles could only be fired on orders from the regimental commander, Colonel Maltsev, who would only act on instructions from Moscow. As a practical matter, however, the lack of codes or locks on the warheads meant that they could be launched by a lieutenant, with the help of a couple of soldiers.

"Okopat'sya!" yelled the major. ("Entrench!")

There was not much point to this order. The ground was so hard and stony that it was impossible to dig down below the topsoil. The officers eventually relented. They permitted the troops to pitch their tents on the rocks and rest for a couple of hours. In the meantime, everything was in place for the nuclear destruction of the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Inside the naval base, American electronic eavesdroppers followed the Soviet convoy as it moved toward Filipinas, experiencing a fatal accident along the way. Thanks to the emergency radio transmissions, they were able to identify both military camps, as well as Maltsev's field headquarters. All three locations were marked down for U.S. air attack under Operation Scabbards. Intelligence officers reported large numbers of "Russ/Sino/Cuban troops," moving "unidentified artillery equipment" to Filipinas. They noted that the complex was "mobile and requires constant surveillance."

Precisely what kind of "equipment" the Soviets had placed in Filipinas remained a mystery to U.S. intelligence analysts. It never occurred to them that the naval base had been targeted with tactical nuclear weapons. When the British consul in Santiago de Cuba passed on rumors about Soviet rocket launchers in Filipinas, he was thanked for the information by his superiors and told not to worry. "The U.S. authorities in Guantanamo know of base in [Filipinas] and are not interested, as rockets are small guided missiles not carrying atomic warheads."

Photo Insert Two


Close-up of missile launch position, Sagua la Grande. [NARA]


General Igor Statsenko, commander of Soviet missile troops on Cuba. [MAVI]


A Cuban antiaircraft battery took up position outside the Hotel Nacional on the Malecon in Havana. [Cuban government photo made available at the 2002 Havana Conference]


Che Guevara (left) with Soviet ambassador to Cuba Aleksandr Alekseev (right). Before being appointed ambassador, Alekseev was a KGB agent who made the first formal Soviet contact with the leaders of the Cuban revolution. [MAVI]


The cave in the mountains above the San Cristobal missile sites that was used by Che Guevara as his headquarters during the missile crisis. Cuban soldiers built a concrete structure inside the cave to provide Che with some privacy. It is now preserved as a shrine to Che. [Photo by author]


Pedro Vera at his home in Tampa in 2006. Vera is holding a copy of a plan of the Matahambre aerial tramway he attempted to sabotage in October 1962. [Photo by author]


This previously unpublished U.S. Navy reconnaissance photo of the Matahambre area from Blue Moon Mission 5035 on November 2 shows that the CIA sabotage mission has failed. The copper mine and aerial tramway are both intact. [NARA]


Top secret U.S. Navy map of the planned interception of the Kimovsk and the Poltava on October 24. The Soviet missile-carrying ships were already on their way back to the Soviet Union. The Navy permitted the oil tanker Bucharest to proceed to Havana. [USNHC]


The Poltava photographed in September 1962 while transporting eight R-12 missiles to Cuba for one of the San Cristobal missile sites. She started a second run in October, with seven R-14 missiles on board, but turned back to the Soviet Union on October 23 following President Kennedy's declaration of a naval quarantine. [NARA]


Soviet submarine B-59 under the command of Valentin Savitsky was forced to the surface by the U.S. Navy on "Black Saturday," October 27. The submarine is flying the red flag. Crew members in the conning tower are observing a U.S. reconnaissance plane overhead. [NARA]


The USS Oxford was stationed off Havana during the crisis to scoop up Soviet and Cuban communications, including radar and microwave signals, from tall masts fore and aft. [USNHC]


General Thomas Power, surrounded by his staff in his command post at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, broadcasts the DEFCON-2 order to the Strategic Air Command on October 24. [U.S. Air Force]


Fifty feet under Montana prairie, the two-person Minuteman missile combat crew is on strategic alert. Technicians jerry-rigged the launch system to allow the Minuteman to be fired from a single command center rather than two command centers, as required by safety regulations. [U.S. Air Force]


The commander of all 43,000 Soviet troops on Cuba, General Issa Pliyev (right), with Cuban defense minister Raul Castro (left). A former cavalry officer, Pliyev had little understanding of missile systems but was trusted by Khrushchev, who had ordered him to suppress food riots in southern Russia in June 1962. [MAVI]


Previously unpublished U.S. reconnaissance photograph of Soviet military headquarters at El Chico, southwest of Havana, taken by Air Force RF-101s on Blue Moon Mission 2623 on October 26. The Americans knew the site by the nearby villages of Torrens and Lourdes. Prior to the revolution the campus had served as a boys' reform school. [NARA]


Lt. Gerald Coffee (left) and Lt. Arthur Day (right) being debriefed by Rear Admiral Joseph M. Carson, commander of Fleet Air Jacksonville, immediately after returning from a mission over Cuba. Coffee and Day both came under Cuban antiaircraft fire on October 27. Coffee photographed nuclear capable FROG/Luna missiles on October 25. [USNHC]


Photograph of nuclear capable FROG/Luna missiles near Remedios, taken by Lt. Coffee on Blue Moon Mission 5012 on October 25. As a result of this photograph, U.S. estimates of Soviet troops on Cuba rose sharply. President Kennedy was briefed about the photograph on the morning of October 26. [NARA]

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