The world will mark the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is known to Russians as the Caribbean Crisis, in October. The incredibly tense confrontation brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
The crisis has fresh relevance today in the weeks after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that using his country’s nuclear weapons stockpile is a possibility, and Western experts have not disputed that such use could happen.
While Putin employing nuclear weapons remains unlikely, experts say some situations may cause the Russian leader to lash out. These include Russia losing the war badly, the country being crushed by economic sanctions, or Putin feeling as though his hold on power is threatened. Were some or all of these things to happen, Putin could conceivably turn to his option of last resort. A nuclear strike could take the form of a demonstration over an unpopulated area, or perhaps even a tactical blow in Ukraine. Such a move would almost certainly force a response from the West.
And then? Well, bad things, probably.
To understand just how quickly things could spiral out of control, it’s instructive to revisit the Cuban Missile Crisis. But this article will not cover the well-worn historical path of the conflict itself. Instead, it will offer a look into the Russian side of the story from the perspective of the space program, which was trying to launch a series of Mars probes in October 1962. As tensions reached a crescendo, Russian rocket scientists almost launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against New York City instead.
This account comes from Volume III of “Rockets and People,” written by Boris Chertok. He was a key figure in the Soviet space program, and later in life, he wrote an authoritative, four-volume history of the Soviet space program. To its immense credit, NASA translated and published all four volumes and made them freely available online. The works were edited by Asif Siddiqi, a Professor of History at Fordham University.
Chertok’s chapter on the Cuban Missile Crisis is riveting today, considering the heightened tensions between Russia and the West and the reemergence of a Cold War mentality. “I actually think the world is a lot of more dangerous now, partly because the Russians have way more ways to nuke the West than they had in the early 1960s,” Siddiqi told Ars. “They had a very limited nuclear force that could potentially be neutralized in the early 1960s.”
In the early 1960s, the United States was uncomfortable with the rise of revolutionary Fidel Castro in Cuba. So in April 1961, the United States covertly led the “Bay of Pigs” invasion of the island, which Castro rebuffed. Following the invasion, Castro began to align his country politically with the Soviet Union in opposition to his northern neighbor.
As part of this cooperation, Cuba agreed to allow the Soviet Union to place nuclear-tipped ICBMs on the island, located just 300 km from the United States. As part of routine US reconnaissance of Cuba, a U-2 plane captured images of the missile buildup on October 14, setting the crisis into motion.
President John F. Kennedy, who had come into office just nine months earlier, had to decide how to respond. Among his options was an airstrike on the missile sites. Instead, Kennedy chose a less aggressive path, setting up a naval “quarantine” to stop further missiles from reaching Cuba. This action led to negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Eventually, the Soviets agreed to dismantle and remove the missiles in return for a public pledge by Kennedy to not invade Cuba. Privately, Kennedy also agreed to remove US Jupiter missiles from Turkey that could strike the Soviet Union.
Over time, the Cold War cooled down, at least in terms of nuclear tensions.
From Russia with love
Chertok’s narrative brings the Russian side of this story alive from the perspective of senior Russian space officials.
He recalled that in May 1961, during a speech before Congress, President Kennedy said the United States was committed to landing a “man on the Moon” by the end of the decade. The Soviet rocket scientists noted the statement and hoped it might lead to reduced tensions—and perhaps a working relationship with their American counterparts.
After he heard Kennedy’s speech, the chief Soviet rocket and spacecraft designer, legendary engineer Sergei Korolev, said, “It would be nice to fly across the ocean and have a look at how they’re planning to do this.” But such warm hopes were not to last, and Chertok said he first heard about the planned shipment of R-12 ballistic missiles to Cuba “under the strictest secrecy” during the summer of 1962.
By early fall, 24 R-12 missiles and 16 R-14 missiles were in place, capable of destroying 40 strategic targets in the United States. Chertok praised Kennedy’s restraint once the missiles were discovered by US spy planes.
“The US Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed that a series of massive air raids on Cuba be prepared and executed immediately,” Chertok wrote. “Kennedy found the inner strength to withstand this pressure and reject this proposal. Had such a plan been executed, World War III would have begun the next day.”