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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
Neither Father in the Kremlin nor President Kennedy in the White House was prepared for such a turn of events. They had to look for a way out of the crisis while improvising on the run. President Kennedy could not for a moment agree to the presence of missiles on the island, even though he understood that the Soviet Union would use them only in case of the most extreme necessity, just as the United States would not launch the missiles it had long before deployed in Turkey, Italy, and Britian. If he allowed them to stay, Americans would accuse him of treachery and Congress would begin the process of impeachment. The missiles must be removed, but in such a way that he ,did not lose control of events and unintentionally start a nuclear war.
Father felt more or less the same way. The White House was unaware of the fact that in Cuba there were not only strategic missiles but also several dozen tactical missiles, also with nuclear warheads. If America invaded, the Soviet military on the island, under the pressure of the enemy’s overwhelming force and faced with the choice of surrendering or unleashing nuclear strikes on the attackers, would surely choose the latter. This was even more likely since communications with Moscow, always unreliable, would probably cease altogether at the moment of attack. With the help of tactical nuclear weapons, Soviet forces—there were 42,000 of them on the island, not the 10,000 reported by the CIA—would undoubtedly repel the invasion, destroy the landing force, and sink American ships. But what then? It was not hard to imagine how the White House would react, and it was unlikely that the world would escape a major war.
The world was lucky. Neither President Kennedy nor Father stumbled. They resolved not to act rashly. A secret correspondence began. This had never happened before in a Cold War crisis. Previously there had been threats from both sides, reserves called up, tank treads raising dust along national borders, and diplomatic notes resembling propaganda pamphlets published in newspapers. Now serious and strictly secret negotiations were held from the first day, which could only mean that the two leaders trusted each other and believed they could agree to prevent a direct clash. Every step was weighted in this diplomatic game: Too much pressure should not be exerted, and no weakness should be revealed. Only now can we fully appreciate the caution and wisdom of the decisions taken in those days.
For instance, on Monday, October 22, Kennedy announced a quarantine of the island, virtually a naval blockade. But the next day he moved the line of interception of ships carrying military cargoes 800 miles closer to Cuba, thereby giving Father more time to react.
At first Father ordered Soviet freighters to continue forward, despite Washington’s threats. After all, they were in international waters. They were accompanied by submarines, each armed with one nuclear torpedo along with conventional torpedoes. The submarines’ commanders had instructions to act according to circumstances. If the ships they were guarding were attacked, they could use their weapons—even the nuclear torpedo. On the morning of October 24 no more than half an hour separated us from nuclear war.
Fortunately, the time granted the Kremlin for reflection was sufficient. At literally the last moment Father decided not to take the risk; after all, missiles and nuclear warheads were already in place in Cuba. Minutes before the confrontation all Soviet transport ships carrying military cargoes were ordered to halt and turn around. But the other freighters and tankers continued on their way. Now it was time for Washington to be prudent. Kennedy also decided not to aggravate the situation, and although he knew nothing about the nuclear torpedoes, he ordered that the quarantine line be parted, first for the Soviet tanker Bucharest and then for a passenger ship flying the flag of the German Democratic Republic.
So each leader sent a signal to the other: We stand firm but are not taking any unnecessary risks and are ready for a reasonable compromise. However, a resolution of the crisis was still a long way off; one unsure step on either side and everything would fall to pieces.
THE WORLD WAS LUCKY: NEITHER PRESIDENT KENNEDY NOR FATHER STUMBLED OR ACTED RASHLY.
On Friday, October 26, Father was brought the draft of a letter to Kennedy proposing to remove our missiles from Cuba in exchange for a guarantee that the island would not be invaded and that American missiles would be taken out of Turkey and Italy. At almost the same moment, an intelligence message arrived reporting that America was going to invade Cuba within two days. A Soviet intelligence agent had learned this the night before from Warren Rogers, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune . Rogers had been saying a noisy farewell to friends before flying to Florida, where he was assigned to cover the next day’s invasion for his paper.