On Oct. 27, 1962, an American aircraft carrier dropped depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface. The crew inside had not had contact with Moscow for a few days, so when the submarine commander felt the explosions, he thought, “we are at war.” No one in the US government knew at the time that the submarine was armed with a nuclear warhead that had the same power as the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima. This was one of the tensest moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviets placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. The event transpired over 13 days, from Oct. 13-28, 1962. The confrontation escalated to the point that leaders of both countries feared a nuclear war. It is considered the closest the world has come to nuclear war.
I was a political science and history major in college. The crisis was a common topic in my classes. I read books and watched documentaries and movies about it. But I became fascinated by it when I was taking part in a public history project about the life and work of Daniel Ellsberg being done by the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ellsberg is best known for being the first modern whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified study commissioned by the Department of Defense that revealed the government’s systemic lies to the American public about US involvement in Vietnam. He is also an author, activist, academic, and veteran. And one of the people who advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
HOW IT STARTED
I spent countless hours in the UMass Amherst library’s Special Collections & University Archives going through the then-newly acquired Ellsberg collection. Among the 500 boxes, some documents chronicled his time advising the Kennedy administration during the crisis. There were notes about how they were receiving new and sometimes contradicting information hour-by-hour, how they struggled to make sense of the limited and flawed intelligence they were getting, how little sleep they have had in days, and how they agonized about whether or not the president should invade Cuba. Most of all, the notes highlight the fear and anxiety that was in the air during those 13 days. Ellsberg was a war planner who advised the Kennedy administration on nuclear strategy and feared his nuclear plans were about to be used.
In reality, Cuba’s missiles did not pose a bigger threat to the United States than Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe. The real issue was the optics.
Cuba was the Soviet Union’s biggest ally in Latin America and the Caribbean. After the United States had tried to topple Fidel Castro during the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Soviets provided military equipment and training to the Cubans. Although they had previously promised the United States they would not send nuclear weapons, Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to secretly put nuclear missiles on the island. Their reasoning was that the missiles would deter the United States from invading again while also matching the proximity and quantity of the US missile arsenal in Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev later said he never thought the situation would escalate as it did. He felt threatened by US missiles in Turkey and Italy because of their proximity to the Soviet Union. He thought that he was simply matching the United States and that nobody would find out about the missiles until they were functional, and by that point, nothing could be done about it.
The CIA used U-2 planes to capture photographs that showed the Soviets were putting missiles in Cuba, and the president was alerted. Kennedy then convened the Executive Committee of the National Security Council to discuss the problem. The group was a small group of advisors composed of members of the National Security Council and others close to the president, which allowed him to get advice from different perspectives. Their immediate suggestions were an invasion of the island or a blockade. They discussed their worries that a blockade would not fix the problem and that an invasion could be unsuccessful since there have been failed attempts to overthrow Castro before, and there was unclear intelligence about whether or not the missiles were functioning already.
US ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson was the lonely voice arguing for negotiations. Stevenson advised Kennedy to withdraw missiles from Italy and Turkey and give up the military base on Guantánamo Bay, but this was dismissed by the president. Finally, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council advised the president that the blockade was the best course of action, and Kennedy agreed but called it a quarantine because a blockade was illegal under international law.
On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy gave a televised address announcing the quarantine. He also asked the Pentagon to make plans necessary for military action. The report said that around 250,000 men were needed and estimated 25,000 casualties. After the quarantine was announced, Khrushchev wrote a letter saying Soviet ships would not respect the quarantine and that the Kennedy administration was violating international law. He also stated that the United States was misunderstanding his motives for placing missiles in Cuba. It was just to ensure that the United States would not try to invade again, and he added he did not want war. Yet, the Russian embassy in DC began preparing for war by destroying correspondence and documents. Cuba, also preparing for war, mobilized 350,000 soldiers after hearing the speech about the quarantine.
WHAT RESTRAINT DID
On Oct. 26, 1962, Soviet ships were approaching the quarantine zone. This was a tense moment, but they ultimately turned around. That day Castro urged Khrushchev to use nuclear weapons if the United States invaded Cuba. Khrushchev instead sent a message asking for assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba. The following day, a more formal letter from the Soviets was received asking for the removal of US missiles in Turkey. On Oct. 27, two Russian ships approached the blockade. Soon after, the president and his advisors received a report that a Russian submarine was now between the two ships. An aircraft carrier was sent to signal the submarine to surface. If it refused, they would direct small explosions toward it until the submarine came up. This was a course of action that deeply worried the president. He thought the Soviets could see this as an act of war.
A lot of the media coverage has focused on whether or not Putin will actually use these weapons but there has been little discussion about why someone has the power to commit 100 Holocausts in minutes.
That is exactly what happened. The crew in the submarine had not had contact with the outside world for a few days, and assumed war must have started. As mentioned previously, the United States did not know that the submarine had a nuclear warhead. Valentin Savitsky, submarine commander, almost changed the course of history and human existence when he ordered the crew to prepare the nuclear-tipped missile. However, to carry out the order, he needed the approval of the other two senior officers aboard. His second in command concurred with Savitsky. But humanity got lucky when the other senior officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, disagreed. Arkhipov argued that the Americans were not trying to attack the sub, they were just signaling for them to surface and talk. Had he not done that, the sub would have fired the missile that would have forced the United States and the Soviet Union to go to war and very likely use nuclear weapons against each other.
That same day, nuclear war became a serious possibility when an American reconnaissance plane was shot down by the Cuban military. The United States thought this was a direct order from the Soviet Union and believed they would have to attack. Kennedy sent his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to personally talk to the Soviet Ambassador in the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. Robert Kennedy had told the ambassador that there could be no quid-pro-quo to resolve the crisis. Still, at the same time, the president had been wanting to remove missiles from Italy and Turkey, and he believed this could happen shortly after the crisis was over and the United States promised not to invade Cuba — essentially hinting that if they removed their missiles, the United States would remove theirs.
Kennedy was not optimistic about the Soviets taking the deal and had ordered 24 air force reserve troop carrier squadrons to active duty in case an invasion was deemed necessary. Finally, on Oct. 28, 1962 the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles under UN supervision, putting an end to the standoff that saw a lot of nuclear close calls.
A TALK WITH ELLSBERG
When I had the opportunity to interview Ellsberg and ask him about his role during the crisis, I was shocked by his anxiety, fear, and frustration when talking about this event. He talked about the Cuban missile crisis being a political creation shaped by decision-making that focused on domestic politics, posturing, and fragile egos.
When running for president, Kennedy made nuclear superiority a key point of his platform. Kennedy campaigned on erasing the missile nuclear gap between the United States and the Soviet Union and had publicly said that missiles in Cuba would be intolerable. Additionally, congressional elections were set to happen on Nov. 6, 1962. Kennedy was concerned about how his actions would influence the elections. Congressional Republicans were campaigning on how Democrats were weak in national security and how the administration was not doing enough to protect the nation from foreign dangers and communism. Some Republicans also used the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs as a talking point and suggested the United States take military action against Cuba. In reality, Cuba’s missiles did not pose a bigger threat to the United States than Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe. The real issue was the optics.
Ellsberg also talked about how nuclear weapons were dangerous because it is impossible to be sure about the enemy’s true intentions and capabilities. For example, during the crisis, there were gaps in intelligence that could have led the United States or the Soviets to use weapons of mass destruction. Besides not knowing that the sub had nuclear missiles, US officials also did not know that there were more than 42,000 Soviet military personnel in Cuba. They also did not know that tactical nuclear weapons were already functioning and that the Soviets had permission from Moscow to use them in the case of a US invasion.
DEMANDING NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT
This October marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden warned that we are the closest to nuclear armageddon since the 1962 event after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is not bluffing when he says he is ready to use tactical nuclear weapons to protect Russia in the war against Ukraine. A lot of the media coverage has focused on whether or not Putin will actually use these weapons but there has been little discussion about why someone has the power to commit “100 Holocausts in minutes,” as Ellsberg once put it.
I also spent time exploring its Antinuclear Activism collection in the UMass archives. Its contents showed how activists from UMass Amherst and Western Massachusetts, in general, organized to oppose nuclear proliferation. They were not the only ones. The Cuban missile crisis inspired many people, a lot of them college students and young adults, to organize to oppose nuclear technology in the 1960s and 1970s. They believed that we have a right to live in a free and nuclear-free world. Ellsberg, who strategized the most effective use of nuclear weapons for the Kennedy administration, became one of those calling for eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Even Kennedy and Khrushchev were so scared at the thought of nuclear war and proliferation that they negotiated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The United States currently has 5,500 nuclear weapons, and Russia has around the same amount. Most of the nuclear weapons that exist today make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like fireworks explosions. The use of a nuclear weapon is not only horrifying but also undemocratic. Only nine countries today have nuclear weapons, and only a handful of people within each country can order their use. But one nuclear attack has repercussions for the entire world. Not only because another country would probably have to retaliate but also because nuclear material can contaminate food and water sources and cause nuclear winter. Meaning the dust and smoke produced by the blast could encircle the earth and create environmental devastation. As Charles de Gaulle put it during the crisis, “annihilation without representation.”
We are bombarded daily by the news of school shootings, anti-LGBTQ sentiments, racism, threats to our reproductive freedoms, climate change, and gun violence. It is hard to be young and optimistic about the future. The threat of dying from a nuclear attack does not make it any easier, and antinuclear activism has died down because normal people do not want to think about it, and there are so many other issues to focus on. But we have a responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to fight for a better world — and to past generations that fought for our human right to live without fear of nuclear armageddon.
The United States can take steps to reduce the threat of nuclear war by reducing its nuclear arsenal, which is about ten times more than any other country except Russia. Biden has said before that “the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.” But the amount of weapons the country has is more than what would be necessary even in the case of nuclear conflict. It also increases the likelihood of a non-state actor being able to steal nuclear technology, making the world less safe. At the same time, the United States should prioritize working with China to advance nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, which should include taking a stronger stand when condemning Russia and North Korea’s threats to use nuclear weapons.
But none of this will happen unless our leaders work to make it happen. Suppose we want to put nuclear disarmament and common-sense nuclear policy at the top of the national political agenda. In that case, we, especially young people, have to educate ourselves and demand our leaders make nuclear disarmament a priority of US foreign policy.
Carla Montilla is a graduate student, research assistant, and president of the Society for Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University’s School of International Studies.