Eighty-fourth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Author’s Note: Because the climactic days of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred 50 years ago this weekend, when this blog does not publish, we must work one day ahead of events this week in order not to fall hopelessly behind.
Day 10: Thursday, October 25, 1962
Kennedy Responds to Khrushchev’s First Communication
On the 24th President Kennedy received an incoherent telegram from Khrushchev accusing the U.S. (unbelievably) of piratical practices and “pushing mankind to the abyss of a nuclear war.” It was standard Soviet practice to accuse an opponent of the very evils you were perpetrating against him.
President Kennedy wasn’t buying any of it. His response of the 25th begins, “I…regret very much that you still do not appear to understand what it is that has moved us in this matter.…”
Kennedy reminds Khrushchev that all of the Soviet Union’s repeated assurances that it was not sending offensive weapons to Cuba “…were false…”
The Latest Intelligence from Cuba
At EXCOM’s 10 AM meeting, the President hears CIA Director McCone report that as of 6 AM that morning, 14 of the 22 Soviet ships sailing for Cuba have turned back. (See photograph of Poltava, with IRBMs aboard, reversing course.) The vessels continuing toward Cuba are tankers or dry cargo ships.
Recent photographs show that work on the MRBM sites is proceeding rapidly. A nuclear warhead storage building at one of the sites has been finished.
Two Il-28 bombers have been assembled and three others are being worked on. Another 20 Il-28s are still in their crates.
At about noon Navy low-level aircraft photograph heavy wheel ruts at the MRBM site at Sagua la Grande indicating these Soviet units have been drilling during the night. (See accompanying photograph.)
Other Navy low-level photographs show a Soviet motorized rifle regiment near Remedios on Cuba’s central north coast equipped with LUNA rockets, which may deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads. (The accompanying photograph of this site taken two weeks later shows transporters for Lunas (NATO name FROG) hidden under trees.)
No one in the United States will know until the 1990s that the Soviets have 80 nuclear warheads for FKR tactical cruise missiles and 9 nuclear warheads for those Lunas waiting for any U.S. troops trying to land on the beaches near Havana.
A U-2 over-flight of Cuba reveals that the Soviets are continuing their efforts to camouflage missile sites (first reported on the 24th)—a bit late to be doing this, certainly.
Meaning of the Quarantine Line No One Tried to Cross
The Kennedy White House has been very slow to realize that even before the President spoke on Monday, the Soviet Presidium had ordered all Soviet ships at sea carrying offensive weapons to return to the Soviet Union—thereby anticipating and fulfilling one of the President’s ultimatums. It took well over a day for news of the ships’ retreat to reach the Oval Office.
The Kremlin’s anticipatory capitulation had completely deflated the Kennedy administration’s determination to halt the USSR’s military shipments to Cuba. No Soviet ships carrying offensive weapons came anywhere near the Quarantine line. They all reversed course in mid-Atlantic and vanished.
Ships carrying petroleum, like the Soviet tankers Bucharest and Grozny, and other non-embargoed cargoes are being allowed to cross the Quarantine line and proceed to Cuba.
The evening of the 25th, however, desperate for an excuse to enforce the Quarantine line, the administration authorizes the Navy to dispatch two destroyers to shadow Marcula, a Lebanese freighter chartered to the USSR, until the USS Joseph P. Kennedy can catch up and make the interception herself at dawn on the 26th. (See photograph at head of this chapter showing Kennedy intercepting Marucla. Kennedy was named for the President’s older brother, a Navy pilot killed in the European Theater during World War II.)
According to a Boston Globe article, the Navy said Kennedy’s involvement in the Marucla intercept was “just coincidence.” Marucla was reportedly carrying “trucks, truck parts, sulphur, and paper.”
Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations
At 5 PM. on the 25th, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai E. Stevenson addresses an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Despite efforts by Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin, ironically that session’s chairman, to cut him off, Stevenson shows the Council the damning photographs of the Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Because the Soviet Foreign Ministry has not told him otherwise, Zorin insists there are no Soviet missiles in Cuba and that Stephenson’s photographs are fakes.
Because the photographs so clearly show the transformation of Cuban countryside into missile bases, those present in the crowded Security Council chamber (see photograph above) and watching on television now know that the Soviets have been lying for months and are continuing to do so at the UN, in the teeth of Stephenson’s incontrovertible evidence.
Status Quo at the End of Thursday, October 25th
By evening it is clear that the Soviets are not trying to force a confrontation with the U.S. Navy at the Quarantine line—quite the reverse.
Nor is the Kennedy administration trying to pick a fight there. Soviet ships carrying non-offensive weapons are being allowed to continue to Cuba.
Strictly in terms of the Quarantine, the Crisis seems to have eased. But has it eased overall?
The Crisis is Nowhere Near Over
The gut-wrenching concern is now the strategic missiles rapidly approaching operational status in Cuba. On Monday night Kennedy announced that his government’s “unswerving objective” was “to secure [these missiles’] withdrawal or elimination…”
Kennedy’s phrasing presented Khrushchev with a clear choice: either he would “withdraw” his missiles or the U.S. would “eliminate” them.
The former action meant a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The latter meant war.
Given the 80 tactical nuclear warheads waiting in Cuba to incinerate invading American troops; given those MRBMs already targeted on American cities and bases; a shooting war begun with conventional weapons in the Caribbean would very likely—and very quickly—turn nuclear and global.
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Sources and Notes
The Photographs accompaning this chapter are from the Dino A. Brugioni Collection, National Security Archive, Washington, D.C. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/photos.htm
Kennedy’s letter to Khrushchev is printed as document 68 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, the Missile Crisis and Aftermath (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/51_75.html).
DCI McCone’s declassified top secret notes of the 10 AM EXCOM meeting appear as document 70 In Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Missile Crisis and Aftermath (URL above). Details of the October 25 low-level missions over Cuba come from Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, p. 119ff.
For an ironic account of EXCOM’s decision to stop the Lebanese freighter Marcucla, see Peter Huchthausen’s October Fury. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2002, p. 164. The Boston Globe article describing the intercept was unsigned: “Unarmed U.S. Sailors Search, Pass Vessel.” P. 1, October 27, 1962.
The additional efforts to camouflage MRBM sites are described on p. 308 of Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006.
Adlai Stevenson’s performance at the United Nations is described in One Minute, p. 129ff, and in Eyeball, p. 425ff. Stevenson’s appearance at the U.N. made headlines nation-wide.
Zorin was almost certainly in poor health at this time. On p. 505 of his Crisis Years, Michael R. Beschloss says that Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet official who later defected to the United States, remembers that when Zorin attended meetings in this period, he “would go silent and then look up at us in a daze, asking, ‘What year is this?’ ” (The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.) Such behavior sounds like Alzheimers disease.