The Cuban Missile Crisis: An October Miracle

October can be cold in Great Falls, Montana. The thermometer boasted a mercury level near freezing this Monday morning, October 22, 1962; not cold enough, however, to explain my mother’s irritability as she came upstairs to roll three kids out of bed to get ready for school. The family ran in a split shift mode six days a week. Father rose in the middle of the night for construction work on the Minuteman Missile sites and returned late at night to fall exhausted into bed. The rest of the family functioned around school schedules. It was a routine that rarely varied. This morning, however, mother was obviously jumpy and clearly irritable but she steadfastly refused to tell us why. A quick kid huddle resulted in a pact that we would be very quiet and get off to school as quickly as possible.

That evening, President Kennedy delivered a riveting address describing the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis. I vividly remember the fear and chill I felt at the end of his address. It was the very first time I considered my own mortality:

…”My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months in which both our patience and our will will be tested — months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing. …

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right — not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”…[1]—President John F. Kennedy, October 22, 1962

Had I known or understood the true state of affairs with the Minuteman Missiles, I would have understood my mother’s reluctance to take any steps to protect the family. Being the family know-it-all, I pushed vocally and hard to prepare; to lay in a variety of canned foods and water in the basement of the little two story house we called home at the time. She finally conceded to take some minimal steps to shut me up while muttering placebo under her breath. It never occurred to us to head out for western Montana, the land she and dad called home. The family was the family, we lived or died together. Mother was right, as she most often was, there was little that could have been done. The indoctrination I received in school became a joke in later years.

Malmstrom Air Force Base is the home base of the 341st Missile Wing[2]. Today it is one of three U.S. Air Force Bases that maintains and operates the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Back in October 1962, Malmstrom Air Force Base had the first and only solid fueled rocket. The

Running giant extension cords. (Photographer Unknown)

Running giant extension cords. (Photographer Unknown)

341st became alert-ready on Oct. 26, 1962—rock ‘n roll time. On the down side, the missile wing lacked the ability to launch. Missileers[3] are a can-do, proud bunch and they did not let a little thing like lack of electricity get in the way of the mission. Minuteman missiles were in farm fields and on ranches so they just trenched the shortest distance, a straight line through the fields, and ran really big extension cords.  I love these guys! Of course in a real shooting war we, in Great Falls, were dead, irrespective of preparations.

President Kennedy knew there was going to be trouble in July, 1962, when Raul Castro, Fidel’s, brother visited Moscow. In August, Senator Kenneth B. Keating claimed that he had evidence that there were Russian troops in Cuba as well as “concave metal structures supported by tubing” that appeared to be the future site of a “rocket installation”. He called on President Kennedy to ask the Organization of American States, OAS, to send an investigating team to Cuba[4]. Politics got crazy when, on September 4th, a secret message went back and forth between the Soviet leader and the President of the United States. This message basically stated that the Soviet Union would not attack before the upcoming November elections in America. On September 4, Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary, read the following statement by the President to the media[5]:

There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia; of a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo; of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise.

The Cuban question must be considered as a part of the worldwide challenge posed by Communist threats to the peace. It must be dealt with as a part of that larger issue as well as in the context of the special relationships which have long characterized the inter-American System.

It continues to be the policy of the United States that the Castro regime will not be allowed to export its aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force. It will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary from taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere. The United States, in conjunction with other Hemisphere countries, will make sure that while increased Cuban armaments will be a heavy burden to the unhappy people of Cuba themselves, they will be nothing more.”

And so it went until, on October 15, 1962, Richard Heyser flew his U-2 over Cuba and snapped photos of SS-4 Nuclear missiles that were clearly offensive in nature. President Kennedy was

An EXCOMM meeting (Courtesy of the Kennedy Library)

An EXCOMM meeting (Courtesy of the Kennedy Library)

notified the next day that the rumblings were, in fact, reality. The President gathered the fourteen members of his Executive Committee, EXCOMM, to look at alternatives including: 1) No Action; 2) Diplomacy; 3) Warning; 4) Blockade; 5) Air Strike; and 6) Invasion. During this period President Kennedy kept up his regular appearances.[6]

On October 17th, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter pledging that “under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba.” EXCOMM had narrowed the options to a blockade or an air strike and on October 18th, troops were moved south under the cover of training exercises. Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, met the President and reassured him that the Soviet aid to Cuba was “solely [for] the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba, and to the development of its peaceful democracy. Don’t forget, the President had the photos of the missiles on his desk. Kennedy responded by reading the part of the September 4th statement advising the Soviet Union that the “gravest of consequences would follow” if offensive missiles were placed in Cuba. Still, the President kept his schedule until October 20th, when he returned to Washington under the pretext of an upper respiratory infection.

On October 22, 1962 President Kennedy delivered the address, which I heard. In response to this speech, Castro mobilized Cuba’s military forces and Kennedy ordered Malmstrom officials to be prepared to launch the missiles at any time. What the president didn’t know was that Khrushchev had given the Soviet field commanders in Cuba permission to launch nuclear missiles if the United States invaded.

By the next day, events were unfolding at hyper-speed; fast and furious as they say. On October 23rd, a low level reconnaissance mission brought back clear pictures of missiles prepared for launch; the OAS agreed to support the quarantine of Cuba; McNamara and Kennedy reviewed and discussed options for confrontation; and, by the end of the day, U.S. ships at the quarantine line were prepared to destroy any ship that failed to stop. The game was definitely afoot.

By Wednesday, October 24th, Soviet ships approached the quarantine line and the Executive Committee fretted that Khrushchev hadn’t told them to turn back. It must have been a relief when EXCOMM was advised that the Soviet ships had stopped. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked”, but the crisis was not even close to being over.

By Thursday, October 25th the game of brinksmanship was in full-swing. The Soviets weren’t talking to the U.S.and American military forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest ever in U.S. history. Kennedy sent a letter to Khrushchev blaming the Soviets for the start of this crisis and the EXCOMM discussed a backdoor proposal in which the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba if the U.S. withdrew its missiles from Turkey.

On Friday, there were fruitless searches of the Soviet ships and Khrushchev was talking again. He said the Soviet Union would remove their missiles if President Kennedy promised he would not attack Cuba. Surprise, surprise, a later U-2 flight revealed that Soviets were camouflaging their missiles. You have to love the Bear!

On Saturday, October 26th, Khrushchev formalized the backdoor offer with a letter saying that, if the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey, they would remove theirs in Cuba. Then, a U-2 airplane, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down over Cuba. On Sunday, October 27th, President Kennedy agreed to give assurances that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and that he’d also eliminate the quarantine in exchange for the Soviets removing the missiles[7]. The President did not mention he’d also agreed to pull the U.S. ICBMs out of Turkey. The deals had been cut although the inking of the agreements would take some time, but tensions ramped down.

During this time and for the next seventeen years, the launch code remained the same eight digit number—00000000—it was even displayed on the launch check list. Thank goodness the missileers did not have an itchy launch finger.

The worst was over and people in Great Falls, including me, and on Malmstrom Air Force Base

Home of the 341st

Home of the 341st

were relieved to know the nuclear bullet had been dodged. I recall an impotent rage grabbing my being as the realization that there was nowhere to go and nowhere to hide dawned. I wanted to do something and could not. I don’t hate much but I hate the political brinkmanship game. I told my mother I felt as helpless as a Norwegian white rat being studied to see whether it would drown faster if it had hope or if it did not

. That rage grew me a bit toward the person I would become. I suspect that week in October grew many.



[1] President Kennedy’s Address to the Nation; http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/weekly/aa102100b.htm

[3] On the brink of war—and childbirth—in Idaho, is an excellent account by a missileer of the thirteen days in October and its aftermath. Of equal interest is the link to a Russian counterpart’s account. http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/the-brink-of-war-and-childbirth-idaho

[4] KENNETH BARNARD KEATING; http://www.courts.state.ny.us/history/legal-history-new-york/luminaries-court-appeals/keating-kenneth.html

[5] STATEMENT BY PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY ON CUBA, September 4, 1962; https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/jfkstate.htm

[7]  Kennedy Qualified Pledge Not to Invade Cuba; Don Oberdorfer; , January 7, 1992; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/cuba/stories/history010792.htm

5 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis: An October Miracle

  1. From a reader who chooses to remain anonymous:
    Your mother’s response was similar to mine as we were living in Ft. Bragg at the time and everyone was suddenly called out of their beds to head out in emergency preparation for war. I had Kevin and Jacob at the time and the helplessness felt overwhelming but there was nothing possible to be done but keep the kids from feeling my fear while I watched our little black and white Emerson tv.

    Interesting trip down memory lane. Long time since I had though about that.

    • Of course, Kennedy didn’t want to advertise the fact that we’d given up the missiles in Turkey. So, the Soviets basically blackmailed us into agreeing not to invade Cuba and in addition, we gave up the missiles in Turkey. And the U.S. got nothing but the status quo ante. And the Kennedy-fawning historians have made this out to be some greatly heroic act on Kennedy’s part! Khruschev had already sensed Kennedy’s weakness during the Berlin Wall episode and his Bay of Pigs betrayal of the Cuban counter-revolutionaries.

      • You said it much better than I. I do believe Khrushchev and company had our president pegged. Thanks for the comment. Solidus

        • Just a quick side-note on the subject: I remember the night of Kennedy’s speech well. A year and a half after leaving Cuba, we were living in a tiny apartment atop a mom-and-pop general store in Baltimore. My brother and I had to translate for our parents much of what Kennedy was saying since they weren’t very proficient in English at the time and his Boston accent made it even more difficult to understand. And we kept laughing at the way he pronounced Cuba (Cueber!).

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