.. sive build up, a strict quarantine of all military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. Second, I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance and its military build up. Third, it shall be the policy of this nation to 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 on the Soviet Union.” Kennedy sent a copy of his speech to Khrushchev, who became infuriated. He was angry at both his military for not successfully hiding the missiles and the American “quarantine” which, no matter what they called it, was an act of war.
Khrushchevs first response to the speech was to instruct the ships on their way to Cuba not to stop. Castro also responded by mobilizing all of Cubas military forces. On October 23, Kennedy ordered six Crusader jets to fly a low-level reconnaissance mission. The mission, flown at 350 feet and at 350 knots, brought back amazing close-up pictures of the missile sites. It also showed that the Soviets were testing the missiles for launch.
One of the pilots, William Ecker, commented that, “When you can almost see the writing on the side of the missiles, then you really know what youve got.” That evening, Kennedy, backed by the Western Hemisphere, signed the Proclamation of Interdiction. By the end of the day, the US ships had taken up position along the quarantine line, 800 miles from Cuba. The quarantine was to take effect at 10:00 a.m., on October 24. At 10:25 a.m. the next day, EX-COMM received a message that the Soviet ships were turning back without protest. Khrushchev was not yet ready to expand the crisis by challenging the blockade. This did not mean, however, that the crisis was over.
(May 333-336) That day, military alert was raised to DEFCON 2, the highest level ever in US history. The notification, sent around the world, was purposefully left uncoded so the Soviets would know just how serious the Americans were. Khrushchev responded to this with another letter to the White House. It accused the President of “advancing an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force…Therefore the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of the Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of the American naval forces blockading that island.” On the morning of October 25, Khrushchev received a response from Kennedy stating that the US was not going to back down. Still attempting to avoid war, Kennedy was looking for alternatives. Journalist Walter Lippman suggested a “face-saving” missile exchange.
Ideally, the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba and the Americans would remove their missiles from Turkey. This suggestion was shot-down, however, because government officials in both the United States and the Soviet Union misinterpreted it to be a trial balloon from the Kennedy administration. But after a CIA report announced that the quarantine had failed to halt progress in the development of the missile sites, Kennedy believed only an invasion or a trade like the one Lippman had suggested would work. Kennnedy also decided to enhance pressure by increasing the number of low-level flights over Cuba from twice per day to once every two hours. On the 26th, Aleksandr Fomin, the KGB station chief in Washington, hinted that there might be a solution. He proposed the dismantling of Soviet bases under UN supervision in exchange for a public promise from the US not to invade Cuba.
Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, told Fomin that the US government saw real possibilities, but that time was very urgent, and the proposal could take too much time. At 6:00 that night, the White House received a letter from Khrushchev which stated that the Soviet Union would declare that all of their ships bound for Cuba were not carrying any armaments, if the US would not invade Cuba. At a meeting between Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Dobrynin later that night, the idea of trading Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey came into play again. Saturday, October 27, was the worst day of the crisis. First, a U-2 on a”routine air sampling mission” over western Alaska picked the wrong star to navigate by and flew off course into Soviet Airspace.
When he realized his mistake, the pilot immediately radioed for help. The rescue station operator was able to give him directions to turn his plane onto the right course. By that time, however, the Soviets had detected the U-2 and launched MiG fighters to intercept the spy plane. The Americans also launched their F-102 fighters to provide cover for the U-2. The F-102s, prepared for fighting, had been armed with nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles.
Fortunately, the U-2 left Soviet air space in time and the two fighter groups never met. Back at the White House, Secretary of Defense McNamara feared that the Soviets could have interpreted the flight as a reconnaissance mission leading up to a nuclear strike, but Kennedy told him not to worry. (Brugioni 455-462) Around noon the same day, news reached EX-COMM that a U-2 had been shot down over Cuba. The plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile and crashed in the islands eastern jungle. EX-COMM had previously decided that if an American reconnaissance plane was downed, the Air Force would retaliate by bombing the offending site. Now that it had happened, the Joint Chiefs, who had been pressing for permission to bomb Cuba, pressed even harder. General Taylor insisted that, “no later than Monday morning, the 29th” the US should strike Cuba.
Kennedy chose not to attack, but to wait for another plane to be shot down. Then he would order the destruction of the SAM site. The next event in that long day was a low-level reconnaissance mission flown by six F8U-1P Crusader jets. Two of the jets aborted the mission early due to mechanical problems, but the remaining four continued on their course. As the fighters passed over the San Cristobal and Sagua la Grande missile sites, Cuban ground forces shot at the planes with anti-aircraft guns and small arms.
One plane was hit by a 37mm shell but, fortunately, it returned safely. On Sunday, October 28, Khrushchev met with a circle of his advisers outside of Moscow. At the opening of the meeting, a general entered and read a statement he had just received that Kennedy was going to make an address to the nation at 5:00 pm. At that point, Khrushchev feared the worst. That address could be the announcement that an invasion was already underway.
Khrushchev was not prepared to start a war, therefore he and his advisors drafted a letter with the utmost urgency. When done, the letter was rushed to the broadcasting station. Khrushchev hoped the message would reach Kennedy before 5:00 pm. The letter read: Esteemed Mr. President: I have received your message of October 27, 1962. I express my satisfaction and gratitude for the sense of proportion and understanding of the responsibility borne by you at present for the preservation of peace throughout the world.. In order to complete with greater speed the liquidation of the conflict..
The Soviet Government.. in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as “offensive,” and their crating.. This message, received October 28, at 9:00 am, effectively ended the crisis. The reaction among the EX-COMM members was mixed. Most were relieved, but others, especially the Joint Chiefs, considered the announcement a ploy by Khrushchev to buy more time.
Kennedy, however, knew the response was genuine. At 11:00 a.m., EX-COMM ordered a halt to all reconnaissance flights. (May 630-635) In Cuba, Castro was furious. Khrushchev had not had time to inform his ally of the decision, so Castro learned about the agreement over the radio. Hours later, and still angry, Castro countered the agreement by saying a true solution would have included five more points: (1) an end to the economic blockade against Cuba; (2) an end to all subversive activities carried out from the United States against Cuba; (3) a halt to all attacks on Cuba carried out from the US military bases on the island of Puerto Rico; (4) the cessation of aerial and naval reconnaissance flights in Cuban airspace and waters; (5) and the return of Guantanamo Naval Base to Cuba. Eventually, with the help of the UN, Castro backed down and all sides reached an agreement.
A UN inspection team was assigned to monitor the removal of the missiles and the demolition of the missile bases in Cuba. Then, the Soviet Navy shipped the missiles back to the USSR. The missiles were sent back on the decks of the ships so that American reconnaissance planes could count the missiles and make sure that all had been removed. Nine months after the crisis ended, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an agreement to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This marked the beginning of what seemed to be a new willingness to cooperate and communicate.
However, on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assasinated in Dallas, Texas. Eleven months later, Premier Khrushchev was removed from office by communist “hard liners.” (Brugioni 572-574) One cant help but wonder what would have happened if these two men had stayed in power. Maybe the same two people who brought us so close to nuclear war, now changed by the experience, could have brought us far from it.