Nor had the Americans been above making nuclear threats, or privately and seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons—in Korea, China, and Vietnam. General Nathan Twining, the air force chief of staff, wished for the use of ‘three small tactical A-bombs’ against Viet Minh forces surrounding the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. His hope was to ‘clean those Commies out of there and the band could play the “Marseillaise” and the French would come marching out of Dien Bien Phu in fine shape’. But the gravest Cold War confrontation would come in Cuba. The revolutionary Fidel Castro had taken power on the island, just 90 miles from Florida, on New Year’s Day 1959. Historians disagree about whether Castro came into office committed to communism or whether opposition to his rule by the Eisenhower administration gave the Cuban leader no choice but to shift to the left ideologically and seek Soviet help. In either case, by 1961, when Kennedy took office, Cuba was under boycott by the United States and was receiving extensive economic and military aid from Moscow. The Americans tried to get rid of Castro, first by sponsoring an invasion of Cuba by disgruntled exiles that they hoped would inspire a general uprising (this ended badly at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961), then by orchestrating a series of comic but still nasty attempts to assassinate Castro. Reasonably fearing that his regime and his life might be in jeopardy, Castro asked Khrushchev for help.
Khrushchev had reasons of his own for placing Cuba under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. The Americans had recently made operational their medium-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey, and, while it was true that these weapons were less a military threat to the Soviet Union than were ICBMs based in the United States, their presence was nevertheless unsettling. Khrushchev wanted to even the score psychologically: ‘What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants?’ he asked a colleague. He wanted to protect Cuba and to be seen as the island’s protector, by the Cubans, the Americans, and most of all the Chinese. He sought the instant credibility he thought putting nuclear weapons in Cuba would give him. He may have had Berlin in mind, for a harsh US response to the placement of Russian missiles in Cuba could have justified an equally tough Soviet move in Berlin. Most of all, Khrushchev wanted to rattle the Americans, to give them a dose of their own medicine, to put them in the penumbra of a nuclear shadow like the one that darkened the Soviet Union each day. Khrushchev hoped to slip missiles into Cuba— three dozen medium-range and two dozen intermediate-range rockets, along with warheads and over 40,000 troops to guard and maintain and maybe fire them—and have them fully installed before American overflights spotted them. Faced with a fait accompli, young Kennedy would surely acquiesce in their presence. Even if the Americans tried to take the missiles out, Khrushchev wrote later, some would no doubt remain intact. ‘If a quarter or even a tenth of our missiles survived—even if only one or two big ones were left—we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left.’ Such a threat would, Khrushchev thought, ‘restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government’.
The insertion of missiles did not, as it turned out, restrain the Kennedy administration from acting forcefully. ‘Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Those sons of bitches Russians!’ exclaimed Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General and the President’s brother, when informed, on 16 October 1962, that US intelligence had discovered the missile emplacements. The President did not immediately authorize a bombing raid to take the missiles out or an invasion of Cuba, as several of his advisers urged. Instead, he took his brother’s advice and established a naval blockade, or a ‘quarantine’, as he called it, of Cuba to prevent further introduction of missiles or supplies. He also demanded that Khrushchev ‘eliminate’ the missiles that were already in place. Khrushchev was unprepared for such a response. He wrote to Kennedy that he was creating a ‘serious threat to peace and security’ and demanded that he ‘renounce’ his quarantine decision. The President’s response was to raise the level of SAC’s alert status to DEFCON 2, just below that of war, and to reply to Khrushchev firmly that US policy would stick. Khrushchev backed down, at least briefly. In a rambling personal letter to Kennedy, written on 26 October, Khrushchev offered a way through: he would remove the missiles from Cuba if the Americans would agree not to invade the island. Even as Kennedy’s advisers were discussing the letter, a second arrived from Khrushchev, dated the 27th, adding the condition that the United States remove the Jupiters from Turkey. (Khrushchev agreed not to invade Turkey.) The Americans were vexed by the addition, and, even though the Jupiters were strategically meaningless, Kennedy objected to their equation with the missiles in Cuba. Then, at noon, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Russian missile battery, killing the pilot.
‘The smell of scorching hung in the air,’ as Khrushchev described it later. He had gone too far, he concluded, and the missiles in Cuba must come out. Robert Kennedy, representing the President, met the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, that night. Somberly, he told Dobrynin that, ifthe missiles were not removed from Cuba voluntarily, the United States would take them out. In return for Soviet cooperation, Kennedy would pledge not to invade Cuba. And, while it would not say so publicly, the administration would agree to extract the Turkish Jupiters once the crisis had passed. The next day, Khrushchev sent written acceptance of these terms. He had ‘given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive’, he wrote to Kennedy. The most serious nuclear crisis of the Cold War had passed.59
At the time, of course, the principals involved did not know that their crisis would remain the worst. Still, a certain sobriety set in on both sides. The Kennedy administration did not abandon its efforts to get rid of Castro’s government, or Castro himself, and it continued to build nuclear weapons. Nor did Khrushchev and the Soviets stop blustering— Khrushchev boasted to the Supreme Soviet in December that the ‘forces of peace and socialism’ had ‘imposed peace’ on the world—or persisting in their arms build-up. But observers of both Kennedy and Khrushchev noted a new reflectiveness in both men, who as adversaries had together come to the edge of a nuclear catastrophe. On 10 June 1963, in his commencement address at the American University in Washington, Kennedy expressed willingness to ‘make the world safe for diversity’ and announced that the United States would stop testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, as long as the Russians would refrain too. The speech was greeted with enthusiasm by Khrushchev, who would label it ‘the best speech by any president since Roosevelt’, presumably Franklin. The two nations subsequently agreed on a ‘Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water’, more commonly called the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963 and Khrushchev’s ouster the following October did not stop their nations creeping away from the brink. In 1953, with the test of thermonuclear bombs by both sides in the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists showed, ominously, that there were but two minutes to midnight. At the end of 1963, it was twelve minutes to midnight, and the Test Ban gave hope that time would continue to run backward. The hope, alas, was premature. As ever, the United States and the Soviet Union were just two of the nations in which nuclear weapons were being developed; more than ever, the reverberations of Hiroshima were still being felt around the world.60