To his credit, Khrushchev reversed course as soon as he realized his folly. By Thursday, October 25, he had made up his mind to remove the missiles from Cuba. “Once you begin shooting, you can’t stop,” he told his son Sergei. Humiliation was inevitable. What remained was to negotiate the most face-saving exit he could obtain from Kennedy. This turned out to be a public pledge by the president not to invade Cuba and a secret promise, conveyed by Robert Kennedy to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, to remove the Jupiters from Turkey within four to five months. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had warned the president that a public swap of the Jupiters for the IRBMs in Cuba would appear a betrayal of an ally, as Turkey was a member of NATO, and undermine the alliance. The Kennedy brothers were careful not to commit any mention of it to paper and Dobrynin was told that continued secrecy was a condition of its fulfillment, a stipulation Khrushchev scrupulously observed.

On Sunday, October 28, a week of excruciating tension ended when Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter, broadcast over Radio Moscow so that no time would be wasted in transmission, signaling acceptance of all terms. An enraged Castro, who, as the crisis neared its climax, had urged Khrushchev to make the suicidal leap of a full-scale nuclear attack against the United States if the island was invaded, was not interested in mitigating his would-be protector’s humiliation. He refused to allow United Nations inspectors on Cuban soil to either verify the dismantling of the missiles at the sites or the loading of dismantled missiles on board ships at dockside. The administration had demanded some form of verification and the United Nations had seemed the least offensive agency. Khrushchev was reduced to having the missiles loaded as deck cargo and then uncovered at sea so that they could be photographed by U.S. planes and helicopters. It was a moment of intense shame for the Soviet military. The scores of MK-6 surface-to-air missile batteries, the regiment of helicopters, and most of the men of the four motorized rifle regiments with their tanks and artillery and other accoutrements went home too. Kennedy lifted the quarantine on November 20, after Khrushchev also promised to remove the Il-28 light bombers within a month. Castro tried to hang on to some of the tactical nuclear weapons, but the Russians refused to hand them over and secreted them out of Cuba. All that was left behind of the 42,000-man task force was a lone brigade of 3,000 men. Its presence, a kind of protective trip wire, was meant to say that if the pledge not to attack the island was dishonored, the United States would have to contend with the Soviet Union. It became a forgotten brigade. Seventeen years later the administration of President Jimmy Carter discovered to its amazement that a brigade of the Red Army was still on duty in Cuba.

Khrushchev actually gained little for an ungrateful Castro with the no-invasion pledge. As desperate as the Kennedy brothers were to get rid of Castro, they drew the line at invading the island, fearful that Castro would take refuge in the mountains and American troops would get tied down in a guerrilla war. Khrushchev also gained nothing he would not have soon gotten anyway from the clandestine commitment to take the Jupiters out of Turkey within four to five months. The deployment of Atlas and Titan and the fast coming on of Minute-man had made the Thors and Jupiters superfluous and the United States had already intended to remove them. McNamara had informed the British in May 1962 that the United States would cease logistic support for Thor when the basing agreement between the two countries expired in November 1964. As a result, the British decided to act sooner and the last Thor in England went off alert at RAF North Luffenham in the English Midlands on August 15, 1963. The Thors had by 1963 served their useful time. They had remained on fifteen-minute alert, 18.2 minutes’ flight from their targets, for more than three years. The old bomber fields that hosted them became ghosts once again.

The day after the crisis ended, on Monday, October 29, 1962, McNamara did something he would have done in the near future in any case, but which he did now to keep the promise to Khrushchev. He signed a directive ordering the removal of the Jupiters from both Turkey and Italy by April 1, 1963. The deadline was more or less met for Italy. The thirty Jupiters there were all disassembled by April 23, 1963. In Turkey the dismantling went more slowly and the last of the sixteen there did not depart until July 26, 1963. What Khrushchev did salvage from his Cuban misadventure was the preservation of the Soviet Union from nuclear destruction and he owed that to John Kennedy, as the peoples of the Northern Hemisphere also owed their salvation to him.

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