James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Secret Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, a Coda)

by James M. Lindsay
October 29, 2012

President John F. Kennedy speaks with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during an ExCom meeting. (Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston) President John F. Kennedy speaks with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during an ExCom meeting. (Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Washington and the world breathed a sigh of relief on Monday, October 29, 1962.  The day before President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had struck a deal to end the Cuban missile crisis. But the deal took several weeks to implement, and it came with a plot twist that the world wouldn’t learn about for thirty years.

The initial plan was that UN inspectors would observe the removal of the Soviet offensive missiles and bombers. Cuban leader Fidel Castro, however, refused to allow UN inspectors into the country. So the United States was left to verify Soviet compliance with the October 28 deal by so-called national technical means, that is, by watching from the air and sea as Soviet ships entered and eventually left Cuban harbors. By the third week of November, the Kennedy administration was convinced that the Soviets had made good on their commitment. The quarantine of Cuba formally ended at 6:45 p.m. Washington time on November 20.

What the Kennedy administration did not know at the time was that the removal of the SS-4 and SS-5 missiles from Cuba did not mean that all Soviet nuclear weapons had left the island. Remaining behind were nearly one hundred short-range tactical nuclear weapons. The White House in its communications with the Kremlin had stressed its concerns about Soviet offensive weapons, which was understood by both sides to be weapons that could reach the United States. JFK had not demanded that the Soviets remove all nuclear weapons. The ExCom hadn’t imagined that tactical weapons might be in Cuba, and U.S. reconnaissance flights had not detected their presence. Maj. Rudolph Anderson might have photographed evidence of tactical weapons on October 27, but his U-2 was shot down.

Because tactical nuclear weapons were not part of the October 28 deal, Khrushchev was not inclined to remove them. Indeed, under the terms of an oral agreement that Moscow and Havana had struck that summer, control of the weapons was to be passed to the Cuban government. Aware that Castro was furious that he had cut a deal with the United States, Khrushchev dispatched one of his closest allies, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, to Cuba to soothe the Cuban leader’s anger. (Mikoyan carried out his three-week mission even though his wife of four decades died shortly after he arrived in Havana.) But Mikoyan became alarmed at Castro’s hostility toward the United States and feared that Moscow would not be able to control its supposed ally. So he decided on his own initiative that the weapons should not be transferred. He informed Castro on November 22 that the deal was off because it violated (an invented) Soviet law on transferring weapons. The tactical nuclear weapons left Cuba on December 1.

The presence of the tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba was significant. Had JFK followed the initial advice of his advisers to strike Soviet missile sites, the Soviets would likely have retaliated with a nuclear strike against the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay. The Soviet commanders on the island did not need permission or launch codes from Moscow to fire their weapons. And if the United States had invaded Cuba, U.S. troops would almost certainly have been wiped out by tactical nuclear weapons. A full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union might have followed suit.

The presence of the Soviet tactical missiles in Cuba was a secret for three decades. A Soviet general revealed their existence at a conference in Havana in 1992 marking the thirtieth anniversary of the missile crisis. Among the conference participants was former secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Upon hearing the Soviet general’s admission, he “had to hold on to a table to steady himself.’’

What about U.S. compliance with the terms of the October 28 deal? Khrushchev kept silent on JFK’s secret promise to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. By the end of April 1963, they were gone.

For other posts in this series or for more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.

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