50 Years Ago Today: At the Threshold of Nuclear War

Fifty years ago, on “Black Saturday,” Oct. 27th, accident, miscalculation, and madness nearly ignite a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR.

Eighty-sixth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Day 12 of the Crisis: “Black Saturday,” Oct. 27th , 1962

Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear gamble, conceived in April 1962, planned in May and June, and executed in July, leads on October 27th to the threshold of a nuclear confrontation between an aroused United States and a Soviet Union caught sneaking strategic weapons into the Western Hemisphere.

On “Black Saturday,” three incidents fulfill President Kennedy’s 1961 warning that accident, miscalculation, or madness might destroy Planet Earth:

1. Accident

A cascade of events send two American fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles hurtling toward Soviet fighters chasing an American U-2 that had strayed over Siberia. The MiGs turn back before their fuel runs out. The American fighters escort the U-2 back to Alaska.

We can imagine the consequences had the MiGs caught the U-2 and the American fighters had fired their nuclear missiles.

2. Miscalculation

There are two miscalculations on Black Saturday, both involving a SAC U-2 mission over eastern Cuba.

SAC’s mission planners make the first miscalculation.

The Soviet Air Defense command in Cuba makes the second.

The result: two Soviet SA-2 missiles shoot down the American U-2 near Banes, Cuba.

With barely a second to spare, President Kennedy stops the Air Force from launching a retaliatory strike against the SAM site responsible for the shoot-down. Air Force attack aircraft have been readied and the pilots are being briefed on their mission when the attack is called off.

The Joint Chiefs, especially Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, are enraged.

Washington had no way of knowing that in the course of Black Saturday, nuclear warheads are transported to an MRBM site east of Havana. The MRBMs have already been trained on their American targets. We can imagine what might have happened had Kennedy not stopped the retaliatory strike being readied against the Banes SA-2 site.

3. Madness

During the day U.S. Navy hunter-killer units corner a Soviet Foxtrot submarine in the Sargasso Sea northeast of the Bahamas. According to those aboard the sub, the physically and emotionally exhausted Soviet commander is with difficulty restrained from loading his nuclear torpedo into a firing tube.

Here too we can imagine the consequences had Captain Savitsky obliterated his American tormentors (and his own sub) with his 12-megaton nuclear torpedo,

Castro’s Request to the Kremlin

One more event adds to the cascade of dangers piling up in the Caribbean on this Black Saturday.

At about 6 AM, with Soviet Ambassador Alekseev in attendance, Castro cables Khrushchev about his fears of an imminent U.S. invasion. After assuring Khrushchev that the Cuban people will confront the aggressor “heroically,” Castro makes an extraordinary request (emphasis added):

“If … the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.”

When we hack our way through this syntactic thicket, it appears that Castro is asking Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S. after the U.S. begins to invade Cuba. See discussion in notes below.

Khrushchev’s Second Letter

The crucial incident on Black Saturday is the arrival in Washington of a second letter from Khrushchev to President Kennedy. This letter is broadcast over Moscow radio before it arrives in Washington at about 6 PM.

In his second letter, Khrushchev appears to renege on his first letter of the 26th (see Chapter 85 in this series: http://napavalley.patch.com/blog_posts/us-and-soviet-forces-ready-for-battle-928a7990). This is the Premier’s new proposal:

“… you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Turkey, literally next to us. … I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. … Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States … will remove its analogous means from Turkey.…”

Khrushchev also claims that the USSR will pledge not to invade Turkey if the U.S. will do the same with respect to Cuba.

What Gives?

Why one offer on the 26th, which did not made the Jupiters part of the deal, and now a tougher one on the 27th which did? Khrushchev certainly knew the United States could not agree to his new Jupiter condition. If it did, NATO would cease to function as a U.S. ally.

The White House Accepts the First Offer, Ignores the Second

After hours of head-scratching, the President and his advisors decide to ignore Khrushchev’s just-received proposal and accept his first: in return for the USSR’s removal of its missiles in Cuba, the United States pledges not to invade Cuba. The U.S. will also suspend the quarantine.

The official acceptance will not say one word about the Jupiters. An off-the-record agreement is quite another matter, however.

Bobby’s Back-channel Promise to Dobrynin

When Kennedy’s acceptance letter is ready the evening of the 27th, Bobby Kennedy takes it to the Justice Department where Ambassador Dobrynin meets him. Bobby later wrote that as he handed over the President’s letter, he told the ambassador that

“President Kennedy had been anxious to remove those missiles from Turkey and Italy for a long period of time. He had ordered their removal some time ago, and it was our judgment that, within a short time after this crisis was over, those missiles would be gone.”

Bobby wrote that he also told Dobrynin that

“Time was running out. We had only a few more hours—we needed an answer immediately from the Soviet Union. I said we must have it the next day.”

The Wait Begins

Bobby then goes home to his family, perhaps the last time they would be together.

Plans had been in place for years to evacuate the American government’s leadership from Washington if a nuclear attack was expected. Families were not included in those plans.

Washington now settles down to wait for word from Moscow.

At midnight on the 27th, Eastern Daylight Time ends. Moscow is now eight hours ahead of Washington.


In the next chapter in this series, we learn how Khrushchev and the Presidium respond to Kennedy’s reply.


Email your questions to phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post a comment.

Sources and Notes

President Kennedy’s warning about “accident, miscalculation, and madness” was delivered in his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25th, 1961. The text was published on p. 14 of the Oct. 26th issue of the New York Times.

Transportation of nuclear warheads to an MRBM site in Cuba is described in Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, p. 282ff.

The U-2 lost over Siberia and the shoot-down of Major Rudolf Anderson’s U-2 are also described in One Minute, p. 254ff and p. 230ff respectively. Gen. LeMay’ rage over being ordered not to retaliate against the Banes SA-2 site is described on pp. 463-4 of Dino Brugioni’s Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991. Brugioni does not document his account of LeMay’s rage.

A future chapter in this series will explore serious questions about Anderson’s fatal mission, particularly why he was sent in the first place and why the Soviet Air Defense command chose to destroy this mission after it had ignored 21 U-2 missions flown over Cuba during the previous ten days.

The incident involving Savitsky’s cornered Foxtrot submarine is described in several sources. The most credible are Svetlana V. Savranskaya, “New Sources of the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2005, 245 ff; and Peter A. Huchthausen, October Fury. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2002, p. 168ff. Huchthausen’s account is first-hand. He served as an ensign aboard a destroyer in the hunter-killer group that cornered and flushed three of four Soviet foxtrots to the surface during and after the Crisis. Both Huchthausen and Savranskaya interviewed surviving commanders of the Foxtrots.

The Savitsky incident is also described by a Soviet communications specialist aboard Savitsky’s Foxtrot. See Vadim Orlov, “Recollections of Vadim Orlov (USSR Submarine B-59): ‘We Will Sink Them All, but We Will Not Disgrace Our Navy.’” Quoted in Alexander Mozgovoi, “The Cuban Samba of the Quartet of Soviet Foxtrots: Soviet Submarines on the Caribbean Crisis of 1962.” Military Parade, Moscow 2002 (Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.) I find Orlov’s account a bit too operatic to be credible.

Castro’s extraordinary request to Khrushchev is described in One Minute, p. 203ff. The text of his letter is printed as document 46 in Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998, p. 199. Castro signs his letter, “Fraternally, Fidel Castro.” His first name means, of course, “faithful.”

Castro later denied he had requested Khrushchev to launch a preemptive strike, claiming that “Alejandro [Ambassador Alekseev] made a mistake in the letter.” Castro apparently meant that Alekseev had misrepresented or mistranslated what Castro had dictated. See James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002, 118 and elsewhere.

Regardless of Castro’s 1992 protestations: when he wrote, 30 years earlier, “…the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it,” could he have meant anything else but a preemptive strike?

Presuming that’s what Castro did say and did mean, how could Khrushchev have done that, even if he had been so foolish as to want to? He knew he had no missiles capable of reaching the United States except those MRBMs in Cuba, and they could have damaged only a tiny fraction of the United States’ capacity to strike the USSR.

If the Americans did start to invade Cuba, moreover, and Khrushchev did order those missiles launched, the net result would be a catastrophic U.S. retaliatory strike against the USSR from which it would be a very long time recovering. And Khrushchev knew that.

There’s only one way Castro could have made his request: he must have believed Khrushchev’s years of lies that the USSR could hit the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Khrushchev’s second letter to Kennedy is printed as document 91 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Missile Crisis and Aftermath (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/76_100.html). It appears that Khrushchev did not tell Castro he was making this proposal to the United States.

Bobby Kennedy’s meeting with Dobrynin the evening of September 27th is recounted in many sources.  The quotes above come from Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1971, p, 83. Thirteen Days was first published posthumously in 1968. The usual caveats about memoirs apply to this one. We should remember that in 1968, when he was assassinated, Bobby was not only keeper of his slain older brother’s place in history but a senator (D-New York) and a candidate for the presidency.

President Kennedy’s reply to Khrushchev’s second letter is printed as document 95 in FRUS Vol. XI (link above).

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