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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
On the first and last occasions, American political leaders had a choice. But during the 13-day crisis of October 1962, events almost spun beyond control of either the White House or the Kremlin. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the fact that its causes were not solely what had become the familiar competition between two superpowers, America and Russia, but something more dangerous, the cultural differences—I would say differences in civilization— between them. Because of those differences, the leaders were unable to judge with any accuracy what effect their decisions would have on the other side.
However detailed the information the White House got from its intelligence sources and diplomats, the President based his final decision on his idea of conduct in the Kremlin. That is the crux of the matter. People invariably think in terms of their own traditions, their own culture, which may have nothing in common with the other party’s way of thinking. Furthermore, a leader will trust his own intuition more than all the intelligence agencies in the world. Otherwise he would not be a leader.
Differences in civilization affect a country’s vision not only of the future but of the past. Every country has its own historical mythology. The American mythology of the Cuban missile crisis is familiar: An aggressive Soviet Union, with the cooperation of a local dictator, Fidel Castro, placed offensive nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, in Cuba, with the intention of cowing the United States. When President John F. Kennedy learned of this, he quite properly threatened the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who “blinked” first and pulled his men and his missiles out of the island. The United States rightly won, and Khrushchev was soon swept from power.
But how did Cuba look from the windows of the Kremlin during the Cold War? At the beginning of 1959 the Soviet leaders could hardly imagine any fate that might link Moscow and Havana. No specialists in the Central Committee, much less Father, even knew much about Latin America. The Soviet embassy in Cuba had been shut down as unnecessary back in 1952.
The arrival in Havana of the partisan fighter Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959, and Fulgencio Batista’s flight, attracted little attention in Moscow. When Father asked for information about Cuba, it turned out there was none to give him. Neither the Communist Party Central Committee’s International Department, KGB intelligence, nor military intelligence had any idea who Castro was or what he was fighting for. Father advised them to consult Cuba’s Communists; they reported that the newcomer was a representative of the haute bourgeoisie and working for the CIA.
In 1960 Father decided to send his deputy Anastas Mikoyan to Cuba to discover what motivated Castro. Mikoyan was an intelligent man and an outstanding negotiator and diplomat. He visited Father at the dacha on the eve of his departure, and I remember one small episode. A group of us went for a walk, and one of Father’s aides reported on Castro’s recent trip to Washington to meet President Eisenhower. No one had any reliable information. The aide tried to persuade the group that Castro was an American agent, or at least ready to dance to the White House’s tune. You couldn’t trust him: That was the Kremlin’s view of Castro at the time.
Mikoyan returned from Cuba elated. He told Father in minute detail about his talks with the brothers Castro and other Cubans. In his opinion, they were honorable fighters for freedom and must be helped economically and politically. There was no talk yet of military assistance, and Father was cautious in evaluating Castro. Meanwhile, Washington continued to exert every effort to push the Cuban leader into the U.S.S.R.'s embrace. The economic blockade of Cuba announced by the United States was an important factor. It all began with sugar. To teach Castro a lesson, after he began to nationalize American petroleum refineries, the Americans stopped buying any sugar from Cuba. The Cubans had to look for a new customer. At first Father didn’t believe we would be that customer, since Russia had its own sugar and had never bought any.
World prices for sugar soared after the embargo was announced, and Father made fun of the Americans, who would now have to drink “empty tea.” But in fact Cuba’s neighbors in the Caribbean increased their sugar production and supplied the Americans. Castro asked for help. We had to rescue our new friends. Father reluctantly approved the temporary purchase of Cuban sugar in. exchange for Soviet fuel.
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.
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.
Father was very much alarmed. He decided not to complicate negotiations, so he deleted from the letter any mention of American missiles in Europe. The offer was now that if America pledged not to attack Cuba, the U.S.S.R. would remove its missiles from the island. The revised letter was sent to members of the Central Committee Presidium, Father made last-minute corrections by hand, and a courier took it to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It got there just before 5:00 P.M. Moscow time—or around 10:00 in the morning Washington time—on Friday, October 26. It was quickly translated into English and sent to the Central Moscow Telegraph Office, where everything came to a halt. Technical problems piled up, one after another. The letter that might decide the fate of the world could not reach Washington for at least six hours.
That same Friday, October 26, the KGB station chief in Washington, Aleksandr Fomin, left on his daily hunt for news. He invited a well-informed correspondent for ABC television, John Scali, to lunch in hopes of extracting something interesting from him. Scali reported the invitation to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who in turn mentioned it to the President. Kennedy decided to bring pressure to bear on the Russians through Fomin. The man was not a big shot, but every contact had to be exploited.
Fomin has described how Scali, during the lunch, began to to press him, threatening that if Moscow didn’t remove its missiles, the administration would be more and more inclined to accept the military option and invade Cuba without further delay. The Pentagon, he said, was arguing that it could get rid of both the missiles and the Castro regime in 48 hours.
An indignant Fomin decided to frighten Scali in turn, without, he claims, any instructions from above. “John,” he maliciously said, “you should know that ... a landing in Cuba would untie Khrushchev’s hands completely. If you attack, the Soviet Union would be free to retaliate in another part of the world...”
“You’re thinking about West Berlin?”
“As a countermove, it’s highly probable.”
That put an end to the exchange. The two finished their coffee in silence and left, Fomin to report to Ambassador Dobrynin, Scali to the White House.
Fomin and Scali were not the only ones to lunch together in Washington that day. Georgi Kornienko, an official of the Soviet embassy, was instructed to confirm the intelligence report that the invasion was about to begin. That morning the embassy called Rogers, the reporter behind the story, and invited him to lunch with Kornienko. There Rogers flaunted his “inside knowledge” that the invasion had been put off. Kornienko sighed with relief and quickly concluded the conversation. This information had to be sent without delay, and by the time Kornienko could get back to the embassy, it would already be Friday night in Moscow.
Father stayed in the Kremlin that night, turning restlessly on the couch in his office, half-asleep, waiting for the telephone to ring with news of trouble. But nothing happened. On Saturday morning, the twenty-seventh, he followed his usual routine, without haste or fuss. He took a shower and shaved. After breakfast he turned to official papers and saw the report of Kornienko’s meeting with Rogers. It vexed him. Apparently he had given way to nerves yesterday, had been too hasty when he sent the President a letter that made no mention of the American missiles in Italy and Turkey.
While Father had been dozing on his couch, President Kennedy had been very much awake—and alarmed. Scali had hurried to the White House after his meeting with Fomin and had been taken at once to Kennedy, to whom he repeated Fomin’s threat. Kennedy was extremely disturbed, and by around four o’clock that afternoon Scali had already called Fomin at the Soviet embassy and asked for another meeting. The time of that second meeting is known almost precisely: minutes after 7:30 P.M. on Friday, October 26.
Scali arrived with a clearly formulated proposal: The U.S.S.R. would dismantle the missiles and remove them from Cuba under United Nations auspices; the United States would end the blockade and promise not to invade Cuba.
Fomin inquired, “Who authorized this proposal?”
“The highest authority,” replied Scali.
“And what does ‘the highest authority’ mean?”
“John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America.”
Fomin assured him that he would send the proposal to Moscow immediately.
If Rogers’s tale of impending invasion had upset Father, Fomin’s threat to attack West Berlin had unnerved Kennedy. It is noteworthy that their reactions to danger were identical. Kennedy’s proposal duplicated almost word for word the conditions for resolving the crisis that Father had set forth in his letter the previous evening. That message, having been delayed at the Moscow telegraph office, began to arrive in Washington only after 6:00 P.M. , Friday, October 26 (1:00 A.M. , October 27 in Moscow). By then Scali had already left for his second meeting with Fomin, and Father had long been asleep.
When White House officials read the letter to the end, they realized they had been in too much of a hurry. It was far better to agree to Father’s proposal than to have proposed a deal themselves. They told Scali to maintain that not he but Fomin, sent by Khrushchev, had come up with the compromise. (As a result, a plaque later appeared on the wall of the Occidental Restaurant, where the two men had had lunch, with this inscription: “At a tense moment of the Cuban crisis (October 1962) a mysterious Russian, Mr. X, advanced a proposal here to John Scali, a newsman at ABC News. That meeting averted the threat of nuclear war....” So is history made.)
As can happen even with important papers, Kennedy’s proposals handed to Fomin about exchanging Soviet missiles for an American promise not to invade Cuba fell victim to Fomin’s own embassy’s bureaucratic intrigues. When Fomin returned to the embassy after his lunch with Scali, he wrote out a telegram to Moscow with a description of the proposal he had received and gave it to Ambassador Dobrynin to sign. It was growing late on Friday, but Dobrynin said nothing to him for more than three hours and then returned the telegram unsigned, explaining that no one had authorized him to carry on such negotiations. Fomin then sent his report to the head of KGB intelligence, Lt. Gen. Alexander Sakharovsky, but Sakharovsky had it sent back to Dobrynin for his signature the next day. No one knows for sure whether Dobrynin signed it or not, but I think it highly unlikely.
Why would he have been so obstructive? Because still,another important meeting had taken place on that fifth day of the crisis, October 26. The vast official historiography of the missile crisis that has accumulated in the United States contains almost no mention of it, and Ambassador Dobrynin himself told the story publicly only once, at a Cuban Missile Crisis conference in Moscow in 1989.
President Kennedy, afraid to make a mistake and with no great faith in the Scali-Fomin connection, decided to ask his brother Robert to talk to the ambassador. The Attorney General called Dobrynin. They met at the Soviet embassy before Father’s letter was read at the White House. Robert Kennedy repeated the same proposal to Ambassador Dobrynin: no attack on Cuba in exchange for the removal of the missiles. However, Dobrynin pressed him hard on the question of the Turkish missiles. Kennedy asked to make a private phone call from the next room. Upon returning, he reported: “The President said we are prepared to examine the question of Turkey. Favorably.”
In this situation Moscow’s receiving Fomin’s conflicting proposal with no mention of missiles in Europe would have complicated Dobrynin’s own game. So he did not sign it but instead sent a coded message about his meeting with Robert Kennedy.
The ambassador’s report, coming on top of Kornienko’s that Saturday morning, wholly convinced Father he had been in too much of a hurry with his letter to Kennedy proposing the removal of missiles for a mere ending of the blockade. He knew there were delays at the telegraph office. Perhaps he could remedy the situation if he hurried. An urgent message must be sent to the White House—a new version of the letter that made the missiles in Turkey part of the deal. Father would transmit it by radio so that it was sure to be received before the other one, which was already out of his hands. This would compromise the secrecy of the negotiations, but it was the only chance to overtake the previous letter.
Father was too late. The White House received the new letter demanding a joint removal of missiles only after the first one. White House officials were astonished when they read the second letter. Who had written it? Had there been a coup and Khrushchev been deposed? Only the Kennedy brothers knew about the conversation with the Soviet ambassador, but they said nothing. Robert proposed that they simply ignore the second letter. Father wanted to pretend that there had been no first letter.
One more episode had almost irreparable consequences, and it also was due to a mutual incomprehension of the thinking on the other side. On the morning of Saturday, October 27, Capt. Rudolf Anderson took off in his U-2 for what had become a routine mission photographing Soviet missiles in Cuba. However, a great deal had changed there during the last few hours. As the U-2 was approaching the island, one of the newly constructed anti-aircraft missile batteries started the first test of its early-warning and guidance radar. Shortly after the radar was turned on, the mark of a plane at a very great altitude appeared on its screen. Only an American U-2 could fly so high.
The operators thought it must be a mistake. How was this possible? The first time you turn on the radar there’s a target? Then numbers appeared on the screen: azimuth, altitude, distance, speed. There could be no doubt. They’d detected a spy plane.
The operators called the head of Soviet air defenses in Cuba, Col. Georgy Voronkov. He in turn tried to contact the commander of all Soviet forces in Cuba, Gen. Issa Plivev, but no one knew where he was. Voronkov called again: “The target is leaving. We have two minutes left.” The generals had no orders from Moscow to shoot down single American planes. They were authorized to use missiles only in case of an assault on the island, a massive bomber attack. But there was no categorical prohibition either. Now only seconds were left.
“Fire,” one of Pliyev’s deputies, Maj. Gen. Leonid Gabruz, breathed softly into the telephone.
“Launching,” said Voronkov at the other end of the line.
Two SAM-2 anti-aircraft missiles broke from their launchers and tore into the clear blue sky. A small white puff of smoke appeared. The operator reported: “The target has been destroyed.”
Informed of this incident, Father sensed that he was losing control of the situation. Today one general fires an anti-aircraft missile; tomorrow another may launch a ballistic missile. As Father said later, it was at that moment that he understood intuitively that the missiles had to be removed, that real disaster was imminent.
In the meantime, a coded message went to Cuba: “We consider that you were in a hurry to shoot down a U-2 spy plane,” because an agreement on a peaceful way to deter an invasion of Cuba was already taking shape. From then on shooting down American planes without Moscow’s permission was forbidden.
But at almost the same time Father sent orders not to shoot down American planes, Fidel Castro issued a command to open fire on them. Castro’s injured pride demanded revenge: Yankee aircraft were making themselves at home in Cuban skies, just as in Batista’s day, and he had no doubt that his northern neighbor would recognize only force. He had no intention of consulting the Kremlin. He was the president of Cuba, and the planes were flying over his, not Soviet, territory.
Told about the downing of the U-2, Kennedy rejected a proposal for an immediate attack on Soviet anti-aircraft batteries in Cuba. The President wanted to know if it was a chance attack or if Moscow had hardened its position. One possibility he did not admit was that Castro, whom everyone in Washington thought was nothing more than a puppet of the Kremlin, might act independently.
The White House did not cancel surveillance flights. On Saturday, at 3:00 P.M. , six F-8Us took off on schedule. The pilots hugged the ground and hid behind every hill, but upon their return technicians counted several holes in their wings made by 30-millimeter shells. This was reported to Kennedy. Everything indicated that the U-2 had been shot down deliberately. Still, the President decided not to act impetuously. Instead he asked his brother to meet with Dobrynin again and to explain that firing at American planes only strengthened those advocating an immediate invasion. One more incident and all would be lost.
JUST WHEN FATHER SENT ORDERS NOT TO SHOOT DOWN AMERICAN PLANES, CASTRO COMMANDED THE OPPOSITE.
The next flight of low-flying surveillance aircraft over Cuba was scheduled for 10:00 A.M. on Sunday, October 28. That would give Moscow time to make a decision. But Father had already decided, as had Castro. Nobody in Washington paid any attention to Castro, but the fortunes of the world now depended on him, not on Father or Kennedy.
American mythology about the Cuban Missile Crisis paints the second meeting between Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Dobrynin in harsh tones, with Kennedy presenting an ultimatum demanding the immediate removal of the missiles or else. That is how Kennedy tells it in his book Thirteen Days . But we should remember that the book was written a few years later, when everything had been resolved successfully, and that it inaugurated the 1968 presidential election campaign. Naturally, the candidate had to portray himself as a tough guy, and his memoirs were edited to make him seem so (one of the editors said as much in my presence).
Father described the same episode in very different terms in his memoirs, written after he had retired. He wrote that Dobrynin reported in his coded message: Robert came to the meeting extremely tired, with red eyes, complained that he hadn’t spent a night at home in a week, that tension was very great at the White House, and that the President was being pressured from all sides to invade. The President had not yet made a decision, but he was in a very difficult position. Obviously, there’s no hint here of an ultimatum. Each side draws a curtain over its own actions, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
So how was the crisis resolved? On Sunday, October 28, Soviet leaders gathered at 10:00 A.M. not in the Kremlin but in the government guesthouse at Novo-Ogarevo, near Moscow. Father decided that this would demonstrate our composure to the world: The Kremlin was empty, government leaders relaxing.
Father was the last to arrive. He greeted those waiting in front without his usual smile and then quickly asked his aide, “What’s new?”
“There’s a letter from Kennedy. During the night it was broadcast on American radio,” answered an aide. “And there’s something else.”
“Let’s go in. We’ll look at everything there,” said Father.
They met in a large dining room used for receiving highranking guests. Its long table was covered with folders in red, pink, green, and blue-gray. Each participant picked up his mail, which had been delivered by courier early that morning. Father proposed that they begin with the President’s letter.
They decided to have it read aloud, even though a meticulously typed copy lay before everyone. Father’s aide for international affairs, Oleg Troyanovsky, began to read in his flat, monotonous voice. It took about half an hour before he came to “Signed John Kennedy.”
Glancing into a thick folder, Troyanovsky added: “We also received a report from Ambassador Dobrynin about a conversation with Robert Kennedy. Very curious.”
FATHER’S DOUBTS NOW VANISHED: “REMOVE THEM, AND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.”
“Read it,” ordered Father.
Troyanovsky picked up some thin, transparent pages resembling cigarette papers, with a warning at the top of each against making copies, and resumed reading aloud. Father stared at him intently, listening to every word and several times asking him to repeat passages. Later, in retelling the story of how Robert Kennedy looked when he met with Dobrynin, Father would always add with a smile: “And we didn’t look any better.”
The President was asking for help; that was how Father interpreted Robert Kennedy’s talk with our ambassador. The tone of the conversation was evidence of the fact that to delay would be fatal. “That’s everything,” said the aide, closing the folder.
“So, what do you think?” Father asked those seated around the table.
No one said anything. Well, Father didn’t really need any advice. A clear picture was emerging. Before a war started, they had to accept Kennedy’s proposal now, remove the missiles, and be satisfied with his promise not to attack Cuba. Everything indicated that the President was reaching the limit of his strength. A joint missile removal was no longer feasible. And Turkish missiles were not what counted anyway. Life was more important than prestige. Of course Father would have liked a more ceremonial assurance of the inviolability of Cuba’s borders, a written agreement or decision overseen by the United Nations. But the situation was obviously too volatile. That was Father’s general train of thought.
He spoke for probably about an hour, returning constantly to the premise that Kennedy’s word should be trusted and that he would be in the White House for at least two—perhaps even six—more years. A great deal could be accomplished during that time. Cuba would become impregnable, wealthy, and happy. As for the Turkish missiles, forget them. Kennedy would remove them sooner or later. Robert Kennedy had confirmed that in his last talk with our ambassador and only asked not to be pressured. Father broke off and looked around at those present. Members of the Central Committee’s Presidium supported its First Secretary with their usual unanimity.
While Father ,was persuading those present and, more important, himself, the duty officer opened the door a crack and beckoned to Troyanovsky, who slipped out of the room. When he came back, all heads turned toward him. What more could happen? No one would have risked calling the chairman’s aide for anything trivial. Father broke off and encouraged him: “Speak up.”
“We have received an intelligence report. It’s been announced that President Kennedy will deliver a speech on television at 5:00 P.M. ,” Troyanovsky said with unusual rapidity. “The subject was not announced.” It was easy to guess what it would be. On Monday, October 22, he had announced the blockade. Now, on Sunday, the twenty-eighth, the next step would be an invasion. The previous day’s warnings by Robert Kennedy were being realized. The President was unable to hold out.
“At five o’clock whose time?” asked Father.
Troyanovsky only shrugged. Gen. Semyon P. Ivanov, Secretary of the Defense Council, had been called to the phone at about the same time as Troyanovsky, and he replied, “Moscow time.” No one knows if Ivanov just made this up, assuming that it was better to be early than late, but the general’s words removed any lingering doubt. Catastrophe was only hours off.
Fear has big eyes. American television was actually reporting that the President’s week-old speech of October 22 would be repeated on Sunday. We can only speculate why our Washington intelligence station turned it into a new address to the nation. Father resumed speaking. In his opinion, our agreement to remove the missiles should be broadcast at once over the radio. Father was ready to begin dictating immediately. His stenographers, who were sitting at a small table along the wall, made their preparations. But Troyanovsky had more news to impart.
“Nikita Sergeyevich, a very disturbing message has also come in from Castro.” Oleg Aleksandrovich again spoke in quiet and measured tones. “The text itself is still at the Foreign Ministry, but I have written down its main points.”
“Yes?” asked Father impatiently.
“Castro thinks that war will begin in the next few hours and that his source is reliable,” said Troyanovsky, looking at his notes. “They don’t know exactly when, possibly in 24 hours, but in no more than 72 hours. In the opinion of the Cuban leadership, the people are ready to repel imperialist aggression and would rather die than surrender.” Oleg Aleksandrovich sighed, then continued: “Castro thinks that in face of an inevitable clash with the United States, the imperialists must not be allowed to deliver a strike.” He looked down again at his notepad before continuing. “Allowed to be the first to deliver a nuclear strike.”
“That is what I was told,” Troyanovsky responded, without visible disquiet.
“What?” said Father somewhat more calmly. “Is he proposing that we start a nuclear war? That we launch missiles from Cuba?”
“Apparently. The text will be confirmed soon, and then it will be easier to tell what Castro really has in mind.”
“That is insane. We deployed missiles there to prevent an attack on the island, to save Cuba and defend socialism. But now not only is he ready to die himself, he wants to drag us with him.” Whatever doubts Father might have had about his decision to remove the missiles had vanished completely. “Remove them, and as soon as possible.-Before it’s too late. Before something terrible happens.”
The meeting’s participants stared at one another incredulously. To start a world war so cavalierly! Obviously events were slipping out of control. Yesterday the Cubans had shot down a plane without permission. Today they were preparing a nuclear attack.
To general approval, Father ordered that an immediate order be sent to Pliyev through military channels: “Allow no one near the missiles. Obey no orders to launch and under no circumstances install the warheads.” Father began to relax a little. Pliyev was a reliable and disciplined officer. But in the heat of battle. . . . “Remove them, and as quickly as possible,” repeated Father, addressing everyone present but apparently no one in particular. Then he had a sudden thought and turned to the foreign minister.
“Comrade Gromyko, we have no right to take risks. If the President announces there will be an invasion, he won’t be able to reverse himself. We have to let Kennedy know that we want to help him.” After a moment’s pause he repeated firmly: “Yes, help. We now have a dommon cause, to save the world from those pushing us toward war. Send a message to Dobrynin. Ask him to meet with Robert Kennedy and advise him to wait for our answer to yesterday’s letter from the President. Emphasize that the answer is a positive one.”
“Right away, Nikita Sergeyevich.”
Dobrynin received the coded message as the day dawned in Washington. After reading Gromyko’s instructions, the ambassador at once called Robert Kennedy. They met only minutes later. Meanwhile, the conference in Novo-Ogarevo went on. Father broke a strained silence by turning to the stenographer with his usual phrase: “Let’s begin, Nadezhda Petrovna.”
He began to dictate. The stack of pages grew higher and higher. Finally he said: “That seems to cover everything.” He made no mention of the Turkish missiles, as Kennedy had not in his letter. It was as if they didn’t even exist.
At about 4:00 P.M. Moscow Radio’s announcer began to read Father’s letter to the President of the United States.
“Dear Mr. President, I have received your message of October 27, 1962.1 express satisfaction and my gratitude for the understanding and common sense you show in exercising your responsibility to maintain world peace.” The well-known announcer’s voice, which had sounded somewhat shaky as he said the first few words, regained its usual resonance. “In order to quickly resolve this conflict... the Soviet government has ordered that these weapons... which you have characterized as offensive, be dismantled. We supplied them to prevent an attack on Cuba, to prevent rash actions. I regard with respect and trust the statement you made in your message of October 27, 1962, that there will be no attack, no invasion.... In that case, the motives which induced us to render assistance of such a kind to Cuba disappear.”
The U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has said that the first decision he took after reading the message that morning, even before consulting the President, was to cancel the surveillance flight over Cuba scheduled for 10:00 A.M. Naturally he didn’t know of Castro’s order to shoot down the planes, but his prudence saved everyone from harm.
Dean Rusk found Robert Kennedy at a riding stable with his children. The Attorney General listened to the news very calmly. The Secretary of State didn’t realize that it was not really news to his colleague. After sending the children home, Robert Kennedy hurried to his brother. I can’t say what they talked about, but the important thing is that the world survived and a process of recovery began. Relief would most accurately describe the mood in the White House that Sunday. Those in the Kremlin or, more precisely, in Novo-Ogarevo, felt the same way. John Kennedy decided to ignore diplomatic procedure, and he sent off his answering letter to Father before receiving the official text of the message from Moscow. It too went out over the radio. It seemed as if people in both capitals just wanted to escape from the mortal terror of the last two weeks. So the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved. We survived, and I could write this article for the anniversary, and you can read it. But everything might have turned out differently. You, I, and all mankind might have disappeared from the face of the earth. The fact that this did not happen is the greatest achievement of those Cold War warriors President John F. Kennedy and my father, the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. Father said, more than once, “We differed from Kennedy in every respect. He defended his capitalist belief, his world, and we defended ours, our concept of justice. We had one thing in common: Both he and I did everything we could to preserve peace on earth.”