The Kremlin Caves: Day 13 of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Fifty years ago today: the Superpowers pull back from the nuclear abyss.

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

The Status Quo at Midnight on October 27th, 1962

 Joint Chiefs’ New Timetable for Striking Cuba

By late Saturday the 28th, the Joint Chiefs’ had set a new timetable for attacking Cuba:

Air strikes against SAMs begin:                   2 hours after the initial order is given

Full air strike, all military targets begin:     12 hours after initial order

Invasion begins:                                        7 days after initial order

All forces ashore by:                                 18 days after initial order

Time Is Running Out

As of late Saturday, there is almost no time left for diplomatic maneuvering:

  • Kennedy’s letter accepting Khrushchev’s first proposal has been cabled to Moscow.
  • Dobrynin has received a copy, along with Bobby Kennedy’s private promise that the Jupiters will be removed and a serious warning that time is running out.
  • The NATO council is scheduled to meet Sunday morning in Paris.
  • To give NATO ambassadors time to consult their governments, the President has moved the start of air strikes from Monday the 29th to Tuesday the 30th.

Sunday, October 28th, 1962: Day 13

The Presidium Meets

At 2 AM Washington (10 AM Moscow), the Presidium meets at a dacha outside Moscow. In Dobbs’s account, Khrushchev has already decided that to avoid a general and catastrophic war, the USSR must “retreat.” The only question is how to do that.

During this meeting the Presidium receives a phone call from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reporting the MFA has received a cable from Dobrynin reporting on his meeting with Bobby Kennedy (see Chapter 86 in this series: http://napavalley.patch.com/blog_posts/at-the-threshold-of-nuclear-war-f49a6737).

Dobrynin Warns the Presidium

It is the last paragraph of Dobrynin’s cable which drives the Presidium’s decision-making process (emphasis added):

“I should say that during our meeting R. Kennedy was very upset; in any case, I’ve never seen him like that. True, about twice he tried to return to the topic of “deception,” (that he talked about so persistently during our previous meeting), but he did so in passing and without any edge to it. He didn’t even try to get into fights on various subjects, as he usually does, and only persistently returned to one topic: time is of the essence and we shouldn’t miss the chance.

Decision Made

According to Dobbs, quoting Oleg Troyanovsky, after Dobrynin’s message was read to the Presidium, its members “agreed fairly quickly that they had to accept President Kennedy’s conditions.” The face-saver for the Presidium: “In the final analysis, both we and Cuba would get what we wanted, a guarantee that the island would not be attacked.”

The Down-Side to The Soviet Capitulation

The Presidium might persuade itself that Cuba was now safe, thanks to its brilliant maneuvers with the strategic missiles.

But the truth was that the White House hadn’t intended to invade in the first place—despite the Joint Chiefs’ frantic urgings. Moscow and Havana had seized on those spring and summer amphibious maneuvers as U.S. rehearsals for the real thing. In fact, the maneuvers had been so much political window-dressing—until the smuggled missiles turned the window dressing into the real thing and the real thing turned nuclear. Moscow and Havana had, between them, created the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

Operation ANADYR might have worked, too, had not Kennedy, like a chicken farmer roused from slumber, caught the USSR red-handed (admittedly in the nick of time). Khrushchev suddenly found himself staring, like a chicken thief, down the barrels of a nuclear 12-gauge shotgun.

Khrushchev caved. Those chickens weren’t worth getting his brains blown out.

Khrushchev’s folly is now clear to the entire world—and, more importantly, now clear to his Presidium colleagues whom he had conned into this mess back in May.

Fidel Throws a Fit

In Havana, when Castro hears that Khrushchev has agreed to remove the missiles, he kicks a wall and smashes a mirror.

After his Sarah Bernhardt moment, Castro goes to a Cuban air force base so he himself can shoot down some low-flying U.S. reconnaissance planes. But none, alas, show up.

The News of the Soviet Capitulation Goes Public

Just after 9 AM 50 years ago today, teletype bells start ringing all over Washington with a news flash from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service:

"Moscow Domestic Service in Russian at 1404GMT on 28 October broadcast a message from Khrushchev to President Kennedy stating that the USSR had decided to dismantle Soviet missiles in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union."

A more detailed message follows the first at 9:11 AM, followed in turn by several others. Kennedy is given the original message and each successive version as it comes in.

Kennedy’s Confirmation to Khrushchev

During the day, Kennedy writes Khrushchev:

“I consider my letter to you of October twenty-seventh…and your reply of today…as firm undertakings on the part of both our governments which should be promptly carried out. I hope that the necessary measures can at once be taken through the United Nations as your message says, so that the United States in turn can remove the quarantine measures now in effect. I have already made arrangements to report all these matters to the Organization of American States, whose members share a deep interest in a genuine peace in the Caribbean area.”

No Crowing!

In an effort to help Khrushchev save face, President instructs Press Secretary Salinger to tell the networks not to crow over the Soviet capitulation.

The networks found this difficult to do. According to Michael Dobbs, Charles Collingwood of CBS, posed before a map of Cuba, declaimed, “This is the day we have every reason to believe the world came out from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since World War II.” Collingwood described Khrushchev’s letter to Kennedy as “a humiliating defeat for Soviet policy.”

At the White House

EXCOM reconvenes after the President returns from church at about 11:10 AM. Even Kennedy’s critics join in praising his victory. The “self-appointed spokesman for the hawks” in EXCOM reportedly says, “Everyone knows who were the hawks and who were the doves. Today was the day of the doves.”

But was it “the day of the doves”? Kennedy had combined diplomatic negotiations with a show of strength—the naval quarantine—backed by the very real threat of air strikes followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. He had very nicely blocked Khrushchev’s second “Jupiter” deal by accepting his first “non-Jupiter” deal accompanied by Bobby’s private assurances that the Jupiters were on their way out.

Perhaps Jack Kennedy had fulfilled, in the nuclear age, President Theodore Roosevelt’s early 20th century aphorism: “Walk softly but carry a big stick.”

On this 50th anniversary of the 13th Day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps we can say that this was a day won by a dove backed up by a hawk waiting, however impatiently, in the wings. But the dove was in command, not the hawk. And that’s why we’re all here today.

The Joy is not Universal

The afternoon of the 28th, President Kennedy asked Secretary of State McNamara and his assistant Roswell Gilpatric to bring the Joint Chiefs to the Cabinet Room so he could tell them (perhaps not entirely truthfully) “how much I benefited from your advice and your counsel and your behavior during this very, very difficult period.” 

He might have saved his breath. Michael R. Beschloss writes that Admiral George Anderson yelled, “We have been had!” Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, “pounded the table: ‘It’s the greatest defeat in our history, Mr. President.… We should invade today!’ ”  

Kennedy was reportedly speechless in the face of this intransigent wrath. When the Pentagon delegation had left, Kennedy commented, “The military are mad. They wanted to do this. It’s lucky for us we have McNamara over there.”

It’s Not Over

The Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement may have relaxed the tensions accumulated over the 13 days of the Missile Crisis, but new tensions quickly rush in over what other weapons in Cuba the agreement covered and who would monitor their removal. These battles are fought at the United Nations in New York.

And in Havana?

Khrushchev’s decision to remove the strategic missile was unilateral. While he certainly did not have time to consult Fidel Castro beforehand, Khrushchev did not even tell Castro what he was doing when he did it. Castro heard the news the way everyone else did: over the radio.

So Khrushchev now had to smooth the badly ruffled feathers of the hyper-proud head of the Soviet Union’s only ally in the Western Hemisphere. To shift from poultry to medicine, Castro’s nose was so far out of joint that it required a special mission headed by Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan to restore the injured schnoz to its rightful place in El Commandante’s bearded physiognomy.

Future Chapters

Future chapters in this series will ask some serious questions about decisions made during the Thirteen Days of the Missile Crisis.

The next chapters will focus on the death of Major Rudolf Anderson, USAF, pilot of the American U-2 the Soviets shot down over Banes, Cuba, on October 27th. The question:

Did the Strategic Air Command receive and ignore two warnings that Anderson’s U-2 might be attacked?


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

Sources and Notes

My comments above appear in italics.

Michael Dobbs describes the Joint Chiefs’ new timetable on p. 319ff of his One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Dobbs’s account of the 10 AM Moscow Presidium meeting starts on p. 321 of One MInute.

Dobrynin’s October 28th cable to the FMA is printed on pp. 79-80 of Bulletin Five of the Cold War International History Project, Spring 1995. This document evidently was found in the archives of the FMA, translated, and reproduced in Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, appendix, pp. 523-526, with minor revisions.

According to 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, p. xxvii, Oleg Trayonovsky was in 1962 Khrushchev’s special assistant for international relations, with particular expertise on the United States. Troyanovsky, son of the first Soviet ambassador to the U.S., had grown up in the United States and had been a student at Swarthmore College.

The news flashes from Moscow reporting the Kremlin’s capitulation are described on p. 485ff of Dino Brugioni’s Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991.

Khrushchev’s letter confirming Kennedy’s acceptance of his first offer on the 26th is document 102 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, the Missile Crisis and Aftermath, http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/101_125.html).

EXCOM’s reaction to the news from Moscow and the Joint Chiefs’ is described on p. 334ff of One Minute. The “self-appointed spokesman for the hawks” whom Dobbs quotes but does not identify by name was National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. The quote about this being the “day of the doves” is attributed to Bundy in document 103 of FRUS XI (“Summary Record of the Tenth Meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council”). EXCOM’s jubilation is briefly described on p. 392 of Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998.

See also McCone’s brief, laconic notes of the meeting in document 105 in Mary McAuliffe, ed., CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Washington, D.C.: October 1992. The CIA’s Walter Elder’s notes of this meeting (document 206 in McAuliffe) are fuller but “based on debriefing of DCI,” i.e. based on what McCone told Elder about the meeting.

The Joint Chiefs’ anger over the peaceful resolution to the Missile Crisis is described by Michael R. Beschloss on p. 544 of his The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. Kennedy’s “the military are mad” remark was recorded by White House aide Arthur Schlesinger.

Castro’s temper tantrum is described on p. 335 of One Minute. His futile excursion to shoot down Yanqui spy planes is described on p. 392 of Chang and Kornbluh.

JFK’s confirmation letter to Khrushchev is printed as document 104 in FRUS Vol. XI (link above).

Kennedy’s vain attempt to stifle unseemly preening by members of the Fourth Estate is described on p. 337 of One Minute, as is Collingwood’s depiction of the climax of the Missile Crisis.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Belle (Orchid Lady) October 31, 2012 at 09:25 PM
I am amazed every single day at the similarities we face as a nation today, that are almost mirror images of 50 years ago. All the way down to the arguments between the 'doves' and the 'hawks' about going to war. I'm starting to feel like I'm living in the "Matrix". Can someone wake me up now?
Peter Hufstader October 31, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Who wrote, "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it?" Or words to that effect? Santayana? Thanks for commenting during this series. I've enhoyed it.
Belle (Orchid Lady) October 31, 2012 at 09:59 PM
I have enjoyed reading it. You did a fantastic job of putting it together. There were lots of interesting little tid-bits that I didn't know before hand. As long as you keep blogging, I'll keep reading!


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