Today marks the 59th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when the world’s two superpowers stood on the brink of nuclear war

We are just one miscalculation away from Armageddon. It is the closest we have come to holocaust and oblivion –the nuclear clock is ticking down in its final minute before midnight and total darkness.

It is this day, October 24 in 1962, when Soviet freighters carrying ballistic missiles, shadowed by Russian nuclear submarines, are approaching the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba.

Breaching it will, President John F Kennedy has warned, lead to war. As the ships reach the quarantine line they pause, having received a radio message from Moscow to hold where they are.

It is day 10 of the 13 days that shook the world, the title of the book that Bobby Kennedy, then the US Attorney General, and part of the team plotting a strategy from a White House bunker in Washington. It is the most dangerous point of the Cold War, with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev testing the young president less than 18 months in the post and Kennedy determined not to flinch.

The USSR has started to build missile bases in Cuba, rather naively thinking that the construction will not be noticed. But on day one – October 16 – the crisis begins as a U-2 spy plane has photographed the activity and several SS-4 Soviet nuclear missiles on the ground.

It was flagrant provocation, and just 90 miles from the USA. But thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr characterised as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world”, the Soviets blinked first.

Except that nothing in that last paragraph is true. It was the line the Kennedy administration fed to a gullible media and which was regurgitated by those Americans who were at the heart of it, like Bobby, in their memoirs. The truth took nearly 40 years to come out.

In 1997, secret recordings that Kennedy had made of meetings with his top advisers – the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm – were discovered. These atomised the US myth of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

‘Missile gap’

Kennedy had won the 1960 presidential election by attacking Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate and outgoing vice-president, from the right. He claimed that the previous administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the USSR’s favour. He knew that was a lie because, as a presidential candidate, he was party to classified briefings.

In fact, the US had more than nine times as many nuclear weapons as the USSR, with missiles, planes and submarines carrying nearly 3,500 warheads. And Khrushchev knew it and exactly where they were. In 1961, Kennedy had deployed Jupiter intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Italy and Turkey, right on Russia’s border.

As Khrushchev later put it to his defence council, “the Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you’.’

Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba in 1959, sweeping away the corrupt Batista regime, and tried to form relations with the US, but they were rejected. Russia became the ally.

Khrushchev was motivated by the belief, the fact, with evidence that the Kennedy administration wanted to destroy Castro’s regime.

There had been the catastrophic invasion at the Bay of Pigs, followed by sabotage, paramilitary assaults, and assassination attempts – the largest clandestine operation in the history of the CIA.

On day one of the crisis, the secret recordings reveal a bizarre conversation – ignorant, perhaps cynical or sarcastic – between JFK and his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. Kennedy says: “Why does he put these in there, though? It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” To which Bundy immediately responded: “Well, we did it, Mr President.”

The Soviet threat

KENNEDY knew that the missiles in Cuba didn’t alter the strategic nuclear balance although he claimed in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas”.

The truth was, as he told ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much”.

On the second day, Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen summarised that meeting in a memo to JFK. “It is generally agreed,” he wrote, “that these missiles, even when fully operational, do not significantly alter the balance of power – i.e. they do not significantly increase the potential megatonnage capable of being unleashed on American soil, even after a surprise American nuclear strike.”

Despite this, on day five, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, although he euphemistically called it a quarantine because a blockade is an act of war in international law.

One adviser told ExComm that “our legal problem was that their action wasn’t illegal”.

‘Unacceptable’

IT was about politics. In a 1987 interview, former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara put it this way: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.”

Kennedy, in his presidential run, had red-baited the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, claiming that they “helped make communism’s first Caribbean base”.

He had defined Cuba as an important election issue and, given the humiliation he had suffered over the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a clear and present threat to his reign. While the US wasn’t in mortal danger, JFK’s presidency certainly was.

His close friend, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, ambassador to India under JFK, said later: “Once [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration urged it to take almost any risk to get them out.” Including potential nuclear Armageddon.

Yet another lie

THE sane way out would have been to trade missiles – Cuba’s for the removal of US ones from Turkey and Italy. Khrushchev made just that offer on day 12 – October 27 – which the Kennedy narrative claims was vigorously rejected, propagating the myth that with no way out the USSR was the one to back down.

That was another lie. The deal had been accepted, which JFK said he would abrogate if the truth came out. It was made between Bobby Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, but a formal record was rejected by the US side.

The younger Kennedy reasoned that any letter “could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future”.

In April 1963, Kennedy quietly withdrew US missiles from Italy and Turkey, keeping his part of the then-secret bargain. Seven months later he was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated.

About 10,000 US troops were already in Vietnam as “advisers” and LBJ was about to dramatically increase numbers, send them into battle and create another catastrophic political crisis.

The nuclear clock went back to five minutes to midnight.