60 years after the Cuban missile crisis, Russia’s threats reignite Cold War fears

by | Oct 16, 2022 | Top Stories

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A U-2 spy photo shows a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base in October 1962.

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When President Biden compared Russia’s nuclear threat against Ukraine to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it highlighted just how much that Cold War showdown continues to shape our collective psyche. Although Biden’s remarks earlier this month about the “prospect of Armageddon” have been labeled alarming by some and alarmist by others, they emphasize that the stakes in any such conflict between nuclear-armed rivals have not changed since the infamous “13 days” of the crisis. “We came really close to nuclear catastrophe,” says Fredrik Logevall, a Harvard history professor and author of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956. The crisis began on the morning of Oct. 16, 1962. President John F. Kennedy was shown photos taken by a U-2 spy plane indicating Soviet ballistic sites under construction on the island of Cuba. Once operational, he was informed, they could be used to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland virtually without warning. The first of a series of meetings of top advisers and Cabinet officials was quickly convened, including the president’s brother and close confidant, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The group ultimately settled on a naval quarantine, or blockade, of Cuba to force Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles. Ultimately, Khrushchev received an assurance that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and, in a deal that remained secret for a quarter century, the U.S. also promised to remove its missiles from Turkey. In the 60 years since the Cuban missile crisis, new information has come out that sheds light on the events of October 1962. Here are three key things that you may have missed in history class: A Soviet submarine officer may have prevented World War III Saturday, Oct. 27, 1962, “was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a senior Kennedy adviser, has written. “It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”

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B-59 near Cuba with a U.S. Navy helicopter circling above, circa Oct. 27, 1962.

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On that day, a U-2 spy plane taking reconnaissance photos was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Cuba. It had been 18 months since the failed Bay of Pigs mission, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro was convinced that the U.S. would try to invade again. One day earlier, he had written a letter to Khrushchev urging him to launch a preemptive nuclear strike before U.S. troops could land on Cuban beaches.
Meanwhile, despite signs that the Soviets were honoring the U.S.-imposed blockade, there was “extraordinary tension on the seas between captains on their respective sides,” Logevall says. In the North Atlantic, U.S. Navy destroyers were pursuing a Soviet submarine to force it to the surface as part of the blockade. To avoid an escalation of the conflict, the Navy used training depth charges designed to rattle the submarine rather than damage it. What the U.S. did not know at the time was that Soviet subs were carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes. The crew of the targeted B-59 sub had lost contact with Moscow and was unaware of the blockade. The submarine’s captain mistook the Navy’s provocation as a sign that war had broken out. He wanted to retaliate with a torpedo strike but needed two other senior officers to concur. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov refused. He managed to talk the captain down, and the torpedo was never fired. “There’s no doubt that the issue with the submarine is an absolutely terrifying one,” says Max Hastings, a historian and author whose latest book, The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962, is set for release this week. “They didn’t even know that those submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes.” In 2002, Thomas Blanton, director of the nonprofit National Security Archive, told The Boston Globe, ”The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.” Kennedy and Khrushchev forged a politically fraught secret deal During the Cuban …

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