A Halloween to Remember:
The Cuban Missile Crisis
It's Halloween and I really should tell you something scary. U.S. Government has been Halloween scary at least twice in history. Once on the morning of December 7, 1941. The other, at 7:00 pm on October 24, 1962 when President Kennedy told America that the
Russians had Medium Range Ballistic Nuclear missiles and nuclear bombers in Cuba, all pointed at us.
I missed Peal Harbor. But I was almost 7 when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke. How scary was it? That evening, after the Presidentís address, my parents moved my bed into their bedroom and told me they wanted me to sleep with them that night. When I asked
why, my Father said, "Because, this may be the last night we ever spend alive together." Boo!
What Fallout Shelter? Unlike about 70% of the families in our town, we didnít have a bomb shelter. My Dad, being a republican, thus a realist, knew that a 10-foot long section of 6-foot diameter galvanized iron drainage pipe buried 2 feet under loose Texas
dirt offered lousy protection against a thermonuclear device detonated only 90 miles up the highway in Houston - home of NASA, over a million people, and prime target of Russian missile aimers everywhere. Not to mention Bergstrom AFB, just 80 miles to our west, where the B52s,
already at DEFCON-3 were loaded with nukes and departing hourly from Gate 666.
We were sent home from grade school, and my mother went down to the local A&P only to find all of the food goods cleaned off of the shelves since we may be under "nuclear attack"! Impossible to believe today that we came that close and the Kennedy Admin had
no idea that the missile were there and that Castro was prepared to launch them and destroy his country in the outcome.
In school, they had made us practice crawling under our sturdy little plywood chairs and crossing our hands over the backs of our necks. I guess it was better to go to Glory with your head attached to the rest of you. Our teachers didnít help much, either.
Like the one who told us, "If anybody in this world is crazy enough to ever use the A-bomb, itís those Russians." (Not a history teacher.)
[W]as the Missile Crisis all that bad? Did we really come that close to atomic war? It was, and we did.
Back in the early 80's some friends of mine and I were organizing a panel. It would be an attempt so have people think about the dangers of nuclear weapons. At the time, Reagan was rattling the saber of nuclear war at the Soviets. In our community in
Connecticut, there was a retired general who had been through the Cuba Missile crisis. We thought that he would be a good candidate to talk about the pro-nuclear war part of the discussion. He told us that after being right in the middle of this crisis, he could only speak about
how insane nuclear weapons were. Thanks for the digital newspaper clipping.
By Thanksgiving of 1962, we had backed off from the edge far enough to eat turkey in the dining room instead of survival biscuits in the bomb shelters, and thanks was truly given. . . . [W]e rarely notice jets passing overhead, but in the Fall of 1962, you
looked up at every one, praying that it had wings.
To read a completely chilling hour-by-hour chronology go to the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Here are excerpts of what youíll find there:
October 16, 1962 - 8:45 am: President Kennedy is told that the CIA has "hard photographic evidence" of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. He selects 14 advisors from the National Security Council. The group becomes known as the ExComm.
October 16, 1962--11:50 am: The ExComm discusses alternatives. Some favor a blockade of Cuba, but most prefer some sort of military action. Robert Kennedy passes this note to his brother, the President, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl
October 16, 1962: Soviet Premier Khrushchev tells U.S. Ambassador, Foy Kohler, that the USSR is helping the Cubans build a "fishing port" and has no military interests in Cuba.
October 17, 1962: U2 flights identify the first of three Soviet SS-5 missile sites. The SS-5s have ranges of up to 2,200 nautical miles. The military estimates that as many as 32 medium range missiles could be made operational in under a week.
October 18, 1962--11:00 am: The ExComm starts to deliberate the moral acceptability of air strikes against the Cuban bases. Robert Kennedy fears that strikes would be viewed by the world as, "Pearl Harbor in reverse." He continues to stress that the U.S. has
missiles in Turkey.
October 18, 1962 -- 5:00 pm: Andrei Gromyko meets with President Kennedy and assures him that Soviet military actions in Cuba are purely defensive. Kennedy decides not to tell Gromyko that the U.S. knows about the missiles.
October 19, 1962: President Kennedy prepares two speeches; one about air-strikes, the other about a blockade. The ExComm now favors a blockade. President Kennedy abandons the air-strike speech. The press begins to publish reports of missiles in Cuba. The
reports are denied by the Defense Department.
October 20, 1962--2:30 pm: President Kennedy informs the ExComm that any military action against Cuba would involve the use of atomic weapons. He thus opts for a blockade and schedules his address to the nation for October 22 at 7:00 pm.
October 21, 1962--11:30 am: Although he is committed to the blockade, President Kennedy directs the Tactical Air Command to be ready to carry out an airstrike against Cuban bases any time after the morning of October 22, 1962.
October 22, 1962--12:00 noon: SAC initiates a massive alert of its B-52 nuclear bomber force. B-52 flights begin around the clock, with a new bomber taking off each time another lands. For the first time in history, all aircraft are armed with nuclear
October 22, 1962 -- 2:14pm: President Kennedy orders that U.S. Military forces worldwide go to DEFCON-3 -- an increased alert posture -- as of 7:00 pm, the time of his speech to the nation.
October 22, 1962--7:00 pm: President Kennedy, in a 17-minute televised speech, informs the nation of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. he states that as one of his "initial steps," a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment" is
being put into effect. Kennedy warns the Soviet government that the United States will "regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response against
the Soviet Union." U.S. military forces worldwide, with the exception of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), are placed on DEFCON 3. ICBM missile crews are alerted and Polaris nuclear submarines in port are dispatched to stations at sea. During the president's speech,
twenty-two interceptor aircraft go airborne in the event the Cuban government reacts militarily.
October 22, 1962--7:30 pm: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, speaking to a meeting of all foreign ambassadors in Washington, tells the group, "I would not be candid and I would not be fair with you if I did not say that we are in as grave a crisis as mankind has
October 23, 1962--8:00 am: In a letter to President Kennedy, Chairman Khrushchev reaffirms his contention that Soviet military actions in Cuba are defensive and concludes, "I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions
pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace."
October 23, 1962--5:40 pm: Fidel Castro places Cubaís 270,000-man military on its highest state of alert.
October 23, 1962--7:06 pm: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504 formally declaring the blockade of Cuban sea ports. Orders are issued to begin enforcing the blockade at 10:00 am the next morning.
October 23, 1962--8:35 pm: Fidel Castro, in a 90 minute speech, tells the Cuban people that Cuba will never disarm while the United States persists in its policy of aggression and hostility. He refuses to allow outside inspection of Cuban territory warning
that any inspectors had, "better come ready for combat."
October 23, 1962: Results of a Gallup pole show that 84 percent of the U.S. public favor the blockade while only 4 percent oppose it. At the same time, roughly one out of every five Americans believe the quarantine will lead to World War III.
October 24, 1962: At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SAC increases its alert posture to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history.
October 24, 1962--10:00 am: Two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, are within a few miles of the line. Naval intelligence then reports that a Soviet submarine has moved into position between the two ships. At 10:25A.M., a new intelligence message
arrives indicating that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water. Dean Rusk leans over to McGeorge Bundy and says, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked."
Over the next two weeks, the seriousness of the crisis changed hourly. While no Soviet ships crossed the blockade, 23 Cuban missile sites still became fully operational. A U2 was shot down over Cuba, the pilot killed. Plans were prepared for an invasion of
Cuba. Fidel Castro himself went to a Cuban air base and climbed into a MIG, determined to shoot down an American spy plane himself. (No planes came over that day.) A U2 from a base in Alaska accidentally flew over Russia and was chased by Soviet MIGs. When Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara hears of the incident, he exclaims, "... this means war with the Soviet Union!" President Kennedy calmly says, "There's always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the message."
Finally, although Castro remained strongly opposed, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle and remove all missiles from Cuba.
By Thanksgiving of 1962, we had backed off from the edge far enough to eat turkey in the dining room instead of survival biscuits in the bomb shelters, and thanks was truly given. Thirty-five years later, we rarely notice jets passing overhead, but in the
Fall of 1962, you looked up at every one, praying that it had wings.