Sixteenth in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
From March to October 14 1962, the CIA insisted that the USSR would never establish a missile base in Cuba, in part because it had never deployed strategic missiles outside its own borders—even in its own European satellites.
The CIA was wrong.
The Soviet Missile Deployment Plan
In late March 1955 the Kremlin’s leaders signed a TOP SECRET government order establishing two Soviet missile bases inside the USSR, a third base in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany), and a fourth in Bulgaria. The GDR and Bulgaria were Soviet satellites lying outside the USSR’s borders.
Why the GDR and Bulgarian missile bases? The Kremlin knew very well that its medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) could not reach all of Western Europe from inside the USSR.
However—move those MRBMs 1,000 miles west of Moscow and they could destroy NATO bases and population centers throughout northwestern Europe, including Great Britain. Soviet missiles deployed in Bulgaria and other southern Bloc nations could devastate Turkey, Greece, and Italy, all of them NATO allies of the U.S.
If all these deployments had occurred, the USSR would have gained a significant deterrent to a U.S.-NATO attack on the USSR as well as new leverage in the campaign to force the Western Allies out of Berlin.
1959: Operation ATOM
In 1957 Soviet officers selected sites for two missile bases in the eastern GDR. In 1958 the USSR began to build them—in extreme secrecy.
In 1959, R-5 M medium-range missiles were secretly transported to their new home in the GDR. R-5 Ms could deliver 300-kiloton warheads within a radius of 1,200 kilometers (745 statute miles or 648 nautical miles). This deployment was subtly named “Operation ATOM,” an inexplicable give-a-way by the secrecy-obsessed Soviets.
Soviet Secrecy Fails
The USSR never told the GDR government about the secret bases it was building on its soil. No matter. East German townsmen and foresters were onto the operation from the git-go. So were West German espionage agents. It could not have been too hard. The Soviets had thoughtfully stenciled the word “ATOM” on the operation’s trucks!
The End of Operation ATOM
In August 1959 the R-5 Ms in the GDR were suddenly moved 250 statute miles east to the Soviet Oblast of Kaliningrad. This hasty retreat meant that most of northwestern Europe and all of Great Britain were again out of range of Soviet missiles.
Why this sudden withdrawal? On 4 August 1959 a New York Times banner headline had announced, “Khrushchev Coming to U.S. Next Month; Eisenhower will go to Soviet in Autumn.”
It appears that Khrushchev abandoned his new nuclear bases in order not to jeopardize this unprecedented exchange of visits.
Where was the CIA?
News of ATOM finally reached Washington in late 1960. As of early 1961, therefore, the U.S. intelligence community knew at some level—at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, for example—that the Kremlin had deployed missiles outside the USSR, however briefly.
If the State Department knew about Operation ATOM, however belatedly, the CIA must have known about it too. If the CIA did know about Operation ATOM, it decided to ignore what it knew in its 1962 Intelligence Estimates.
The Point to Remember
By March 1955, a good seven years before the Cuban missile deployment, the Soviets had already figured out that their missiles could hit out-of-range targets if they were simply moved closer to the targets!
The CIA’s 1962 statements about missiles in Cuba appear in NIE 85-62 (21 March 1962), NIE 85-2-62 (1 August 1962), and in Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) 85-3-62 (19 September 1962). The March 1962 opinion is described in No. 11 in this series, The CIA’s Cracked Crystal Ball (http://napa.patch.com/blog_posts/the-cias-cracked-crystal-ball). The August and September estimates will be discussed in future posts.
My primary source for Operation ATOM is Matthias Uhl and Vladimir I. Ivkin, “ ‘Operation Atom’: The Soviet Union’s Stationing of Nuclear Missiles in the German Democratic Republic, 1959.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 12/13, Fall Winter 2001, 299-307. www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/CWIHPBulletin12-13_p3.pdf. While the authors’ account is fully documented, most of the documents they cite are in Russian or German and are archived in Russia or Germany. None of these documents appear to have been translated into English.
The authors do provide an English translation of the TOP SECRET Soviet order signed by Khrushchev and Bulganin that initiated what became Operation ATOM.
The Soviet reluctance to deploy missiles outside its borders is understandable. It feared that an uprising in a satellite might result in missiles deployed there being trained around on the USSR itself.
As of 1955, uprisings had occurred in Soviet satellites, most notably in East Germany in 1953. An uprising in Hungary in 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks and infantry on Khrushchev’s orders. The Soviet government was keenly aware that it could govern its satellites only through repression and violence.
Concerning who in the Intelligence Community knew about ATOM and when they knew it, Uhl and Ivkin write,
“…documentary evidence thus far available suggests that information on the nuclear missile deployments may not have reached top-level policymakers in the US until late 1960. It was not until then that US intelligence agencies had even reached firm conclusions on the GDR deployment. Indeed, the CIA believed that the Soviet missiles were still in the GDR as of early 1961!”
To support these statements, Uhl and Ivkin cite an “Intelligence Note” dated 4 January 1961 written to the Secretary of State by Hugh S. Cumming Jr., director of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, concerning “Deployment of Soviet Medium Range Missiles in East Germany.” This document is housed in the National Archives. FN 33 p. 306. I do not have a copy.
Statistics for the R-5 M missile come from the Federation of Atomic Scientists. www.fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/theater/r-5.htm. A nuclear kiloton is the equivalent of one thousand tons of TNT. Thus, the R-5 M’s warhead had the destructive power of 300,000 tons of TNT. The U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was rated at roughly 12 kilotons, or 12,000 tons of TNT (sources vary on the precise KT of that first bomb).