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Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Cuban Missile Crisis Article

Cuban Missile Crisis Closer to Nuclear War
than Previously Believed

Former US and Russian officials and military officers announced on 11 October that the world was much closer to a nuclear holocaust during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis than previously believed. A conference marking the 40th anniversary of the most dangerous moment of the Cold War heard the account of a US naval officer whose destroyer dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine carrying a nuclear weapon on 27 October 1962. According to declassified documents released at the conference by the National Security Archive of Washington, US intelligence only photographed 33 of the 42 SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles placed in Cuba, and never located the nuclear warheads.

On 27 October, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and US military Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to President Kennedy that the United States proceed with an air strike and invasion plan. Later that day, when low-level reconnaissance pilots reported anti-aircraft fire from the ground in Cuba and photographs showed that some missiles had been placed on launchers, Kennedy told his advisers "time is running out." According to declassified documents, that day the crisis appeared to be spinning out of control.

The next day, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the withdrawal of missiles secretly deployed in Cuba, pressed by US photographic evidence and a naval blockade imposed on the island by President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger stated, "This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, It was the most dangerous moment in human history. Never before had two contending powers possessed between them the technical capacity to blow up the world. Fortunately, Kennedy and Khrushchev were leaders of restraint and sobriety, otherwise we probably wouldn't be here today."

President Kennedy's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, later met with the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, and offered a deal that included a pledge not to invade Cuba and the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey.

In the middle of the escalating tensions, the destroyer USS Beale was dropping depth charges on the Soviet submarine B-59, one of four at the quarantine line, each carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes. According to National Security Archives director Thomas Blanton, the US Navy "did not have a clue that the submarine had a nuclear weapon on board." The sub's signals intelligence officer Vadim Orlov said in an account issued by Blanton, "They exploded right next to the hull. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer." According to Orlov's account, the Soviet submarine's crew thought the war may have started and considered using their nuclear weapon, but decide instead to surface.

Further declassified documents issued at the National Academy of Sciences' conference showed

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See Also
Robert McNamara biography

More on the Web

The Real "Thirteen Days"
The Nuclear Emperor Has No Clothes
by Robert McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile Crisis site with Real Audio
14 Days in October
by Thinkquest
The Real Thirteen Days: The Hidden History of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Khrushchev and Kennedy Letters
NSA and the Cuban Missile Crisis

that by 27 October, Castro had ordered Cuban anti-aircraft gunners to fire on U.S. reconnaissance planes and expected an all-out US air strike and invasion of Cuba within 24 to 72 hours. According to US Navy F-8 fighter pilot William Ecker, "We were shot at." Ecker and his 15 pilots flew 82 dangerous, low-level missions over the missile bases to take photographs that were presented by the United States at the United Nations.

Originally compiled for the November 2002 issue of the Sunflower, an online newsletter of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation .