By October 1962, the lofting of Discoverer XIV on August 18, 1960, had dispelled the darkness from the interior of the Soviet Union for more than two years, permitting an acccurate assessment of its strategic capabilities. Minuteman, the weapon that was to play such an important role in keeping the nuclear peace by safeguarding against the nuclear Pearl Harbor so dreaded earlier, was moving into deployment. The first flight of ten Minutemen went on alert in silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana on October 22, 1962. Yet that same month, in no small irony, the eternal curse of the human race, man’s folly, brought the United States and Russia the closest they were ever to come to nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev precipitated the crisis by shipping Soviet missiles to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in a wild poker play to try to even the strategic odds. When Khrushchev was overthrown two years later in a conspiracy led by one of his principal subordinates in the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, the Missile Crisis was cited as an example of his “harebrained scheming.” It was not the only reason for his downfall. His colleagues had other complaints against him as well, but a harebrained scheme it certainly was.

The genesis of Khrushchev’s Cuban gamble seems to have been a meeting in February 1962 of the Soviet Union’s Defense Council, a gathering that included senior military commanders, leading missile designers like Korolev and Yangel, and members of the Presidium. Khrushchev was informed that it would take a number of years to provide him with a sizable force of reliable and accurate ICBMs. In the meantime, he would have to endure an American opponent in John Kennedy who possessed awesome nuclear superiority. By the end of the forthcoming October, for example, Khrushchev would possess a mere twenty unreliable ICBMs, along with a bomber force of fifty-eight Bison jets, limited to a one-way trip, and seventy-six Tu-95 turboprops, slow planes that were dead pigeons to the American jet interceptors and surface-to-air missiles. In contrast, Kennedy would flaunt ninety-six Atlas ICBMs, fifty-four Titans, ten Minutemen, forty-eight of the Navy’s new Polaris submarine-launched IRBMs hidden on station in the depths, and SAC’s bomber force of 1,741 B-47s, B-58s, and B-52s. Uncounted because of their joint control but also ready were the sixty Thor IRBMs in England, the thirty Jupiters in Italy, and the sixteen in Turkey.

Khrushchev saw a way around this dilemma. The Soviet Union possessed plenty of well-tested IRBMs. If a substantial number of these were slipped into Cuba, their presence 90 miles from Key West would, as he put it in his memoirs, equalize “what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power.’” Soviet IRBMs this close would effectively neutralize much of SAC; there would be no time to get planes off the ground in the event of an attack. Besides, he had been particularly rankled by the Jupiters in neighboring Turkey ever since their deployment. “The Americans … would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.” The range of the first-generation IRBM, the R-12, had been extended by 1962 from 1,250 to 1,292 miles and its warhead blast increased from 700 kilotons to the eighty Hiroshimas of a megaton. The R-12 would hold hostage all Eastern cities through Washington to New York, which was 1,290 miles from Cuba, and those as far west as Dallas and Oklahoma City. (During the crisis, the CIA designated the R-12 a medium-range rocket, or MRBM, but rocket historians refer to it as an intermediate-range missile because of its 1,000-mile-plus reach.) The second-generation R-14, at 2,500 miles, would threaten the whole of eastern and much of western Canada and virtually the entire United States out into Montana. The plan was to ship thirty-six R-12s to Cuba with twenty-four launchers for them and twenty-four R-14s with sixteen launchers. (Some of the rockets would be “reloads” for second firings.) The question was whether the missiles could be transported and emplaced in Cuba secretly. Khrushchev planned to complete deploying them on the island in October and then to tell Kennedy they were there after the midterm congressional elections in November, when he assumed the American president would be under less political pressure and more likely to accept the rockets without too much of a fuss. Anastas Mikoyan, like Khrushchev another of Stalin’s henchmen who had survived to be a better man in better days and was now Khrushchev’s closest friend and adviser in the Presidium, urged him to abandon the scheme. It was too dangerous, Mikoyan said. They would get caught in the act and a crisis would ensue. Khrushchev’s foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who had considerable experience dealing with the Americans, warned him that “putting missiles in Cuba would cause a political explosion in the United States. I am absolutely certain of that.” Khrushchev heeded neither man. He seems to have had no conception that, however uncomfortable Russians might be over hostile missiles in adjacent Turkey, Russian sensitivities about Turkey were mild compared to those of Americans about Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole. Americans regarded the Caribbean as the Romans had regarded the Mediterranean. It was Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. Similarly, Cuba had come to be looked upon as an American possession and treated as American territory after the United States seized it from Spain in 1898. This was why there had been such an uproar when Castro had nationalized the American-owned businesses that virtually monopolized the island’s economy and declared himself a Communist. It was bad enough to have the Red Menace now just across the Florida Straits from Miami. No American president could withstand the political firestorm that would ensue if he acquiesced in the positioning of Russian nuclear missiles on the island.

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