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How My Father And President Kennedy Saved The World
The Cuban Missile Crisis as seen from the Kremlin
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
John Kennedy replaced Dwight Eisenhower in the White House in January 1961, as the situation in Cuba grew increasingly threatening. Bombs began to explode on the streets of Havana and claimed their first victims. I asked Father repeatedly, “How can we help Cuba?” He thought the most we could do was sell it weapons. I asked him: “Shouldn’t we sign a mutual assistance treaty with Cuba, as we have with our European and Asian neighbors?” Father thought the idea not only useless but dangerous. If the Americans invaded Cuba, how could we help the Cubans? The U.S. Navy was vastly superior to ours. Cuba was 90 miles by sea from Florida and 7,000 miles from the nearest Soviet port. What else could be done? Start a third world war? Insane. Father preferred not to take the risk. Instead he decided to speed up deliveries of small arms, tanks, and artillery—but not directly. Cuba signed an agreement with Czechoslovakia rather than the U.S.S.R.
Early on the morning of April 17, 1961, Father’s sixty-sixth birthday, an invasion force landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Reports said that only Cuban émigrés took part in the operation and that the U.S. fleet cruising offshore was not interfering. Father didn’t believe it. His mood turned grim. He nourished no illusions that Castro could withstand the Americans. Then Castro announced publicly that he had chosen socialism. He resolved to win or die as a Communist. Father disapproved: “This isn’t the time to do it. He’s burning all the bridges behind him. Now the Americans won’t let him off. There’s no use thinking of negotiations.” On the other hand, such dedication made a powerful impression on Father.
Hours passed. Days passed. Castro held on and even gradually seized the initiative. The Americans did not invade. At three-fifteen on the morning of April 20, Havana Radio announced that the mercenaries had been routed and the Cuban people were victorious. The battle had lasted 72 hours.
Father beamed. He sent heartfelt congratulations to his new friend Fidel. But he believed the Americans would not give up: They would take stock of their mistakes, choose their time, and then bring the weight of their regular army to bear.
The defense of Cuba became a matter of prestige for the Soviet Union, something like West Berlin was for the United States. If you did not defend that small patch of land deep inside enemy territory that was allied to you, no one would believe in your willingness or, more important, your ability to defend your allies. That was what motivated President Kennedy to proclaim himself a Berliner. But Kennedy had a big army in West Germany and NATO at his back. How would we help Cuba if the Americans took it into their heads to attack? Send our ships and planes? The Americans would block all access to the island whether by sea or air. The only resort was to do something extraordinary enough to make Washington understand that an assault on Cuba would have dire consequences.
At the end of May 1962, Father decided to send strategic nuclear missiles to Cuba. In making this decision, he relied on our Russian and European experience—on our history. For centuries enemies had constantly replaced one another on Russia’s borders: the Mongols, Swedes, Poles; Lithuanians, Turks, Napoleon, the British, Germans, and again the Germans; after the Second World War the Germans had been replaced by U.S. air bases. American bombers could demolish our cities at any moment. During its entire history Russia had been within range of hostile weaponry. Russia had to rely on sound judgment on the part of opposing political leaders, on an American President’s not sending his squadrons to bomb Moscow without good reason. Father assumed that Americans—not just the President but ordinary people—would think more or less the same way.
NO ONE IN SOVIET INTELLIGENCE HAD ANY IDEA WHO CASTRO WAS OR WHAT HE WAS FIGHTING FOR.
Who would dream that Kennedy was preparing to start a war, to precipitate a Russia barely reviving after the last war into a new cycle of destruction? And for what? For the victory of communism in the United States? Father often said that communism was not a dogma but a better, richer, freer life for ordinary people. Americans were a pragmatic people. When they were convinced, sooner or later, of the advantages of the new system, they would choose it over capitalism, which was increasingly decrepit and convulsed by economic crisis. Why should we fight to achieve that goal when time was on socialism’s side? And how could Americans imagine that we would attack them when they enjoyed a 9 to 1 superiority in nuclear weapons? (At the time, the CIA even thought it was 18 to 1.)
That was what Father supposed, but Americans thought otherwise. They were fortunate. For more than two centuries wide oceans had protected their land from enemies. Unlike Russians, they were used to living in security and were horrified by the possibility, however remote, of any vulnerability. The presence of Soviet ballistic missiles near America’s borders evoked shock, and even psychosis. The press further inflamed emotions; the country lost its bearings; and the Cuban Missile Crisis became primarily an American psychological crisis. It seemed to Americans that they could continue to live as before only if the missiles were removed from Cuba, and removed at any price.