On October 27, 1962, a day that’s been described as the “most dangerous” in human history, a Soviet submarine designated B-59 was churning through the Sargasso Sea when suddenly it was rocked by a series of explosions. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer,” Vadim Orlov, a communications specialist on board the sub, later recalled. “The situation was quite unusual, if not to say shocking, for the crew.”
Four weeks earlier, B-59 had been dispatched from the U.S.S.R. with three other so-called F-class subs as part of Operation Anadyr, Nikita Khrushchev’s top-secret effort to install ballistic missiles in Cuba. (The Anadyr is a river that flows into the Bering Sea; the code name was intended to make even soldiers participating in the operation believe they were headed somewhere cold.) Pretty much from the outset of the voyage, things had not gone well.
“For the sailors, this Cuban missile crisis started even before its beginning,” Ryurik Ketov, the captain of another Cuba-bound sub, once observed. The Atlantic that October was turbulent, and the pitching sea made it tough for the boats to maintain their desired speed.
“You have to hold on to something even in your sleep, or else you’ll fall off,” a crew member complained. Communications, too, were difficult. Once past Iceland, the subs had trouble contacting Moscow; for a while, according to Ketov, the only voices audible over the radio “were those of Murmansk fishermen.”
By the time President John F.?Kennedy learned of Operation Anadyr, on October 16th, the subs were halfway across the Atlantic. By the time he announced the “quarantine” of Cuba, on October 22nd, they were nearing the island. They were ordered by the Soviet naval command to change course and take up positions in the Sargasso Sea. There a new set of problems arose. The subs, built for navigating farther north, had trouble operating in warm water. Temperatures inside rose to uncomfortable levels and kept on rising, to more than a hundred and ten degrees, and carbon-dioxide levels climbed, too. “It’s getting hard to breathe in here,” a crew member recorded in his diary.
By October 27th, conditions on B-59 were so bad that men were passing out; in the words of one, “They were falling like dominoes.” American destroyers were practically on top of the sub; this prevented it from surfacing to recharge its batteries and use its antenna. The boat’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, knew from previous days’ communications that a crisis was unfolding above the waves, but, unable to receive radio signals, he had no way of learning about recent developments.
To avoid escalation, American warships were supposed to follow a careful protocol when they came across subs. They were to drop harmless depth charges and instruct the subs to surface. But that day someone decided to drop hand grenades into the water. Savitsky ordered the crew to get ready to fire back.
“Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here,” he shrieked. “We’re going to blast them now!”
What the grenade tossers did not know—what almost no one knew until four decades later—was that one of B-59’s torpedoes was carrying what the Soviets called “special ammunition.” The “special” part was a fifteen-kiloton nuclear warhead. Had Savitsky’s orders been carried out, chances are good that the Americans would have responded in kind, and a full-scale nuclear war would have broken out. There should, it seems, be a useful lesson to be learned from that frantic afternoon. But what, in God’s name, is it?
The story of what the Americans call the Cuban missile crisis, the Cubans call the October crisis, and the Russians call the Caribbean crisis has been told many times. The most influential account, which was also one of the earliest, was written by Robert F.?Kennedy, the President’s brother and Attorney General.
R.F.K. was a member of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, which was swiftly assembled to advise the President during the crisis. In his memoir, eventually titled “Thirteen Days,” he plays a leading role in the deliberations—so much so that one White House aide, who read a manuscript version of the book in 1964, a few months after J.F.K.’s assassination, is said to have remarked, “I thought Jack was President during the missile crisis.” (Bobby, who was by then campaigning for the U.S.?Senate, reportedly replied, “He’s not running, and I am.”)
In “Thirteen Days,” R.F.K. portrays himself as levelheaded and high-minded. When other members of ExComm press for a surprise attack on Cuba, he counters that such an attack could not be launched without undermining the United States’ “moral position at home and around the globe.” “Thirteen Days” was published in 1969, a year after its author’s assassination; it has never been out of print since.
In the nineteen-seventies, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, it was revealed that J.F.K. had secretly taped most of ExComm’s deliberations. He’d had a recorder installed in the basement of the West Wing that could be discreetly activated by flipping a switch under the table in the Cabinet Room. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, the tapes were gradually declassified and released. Meanwhile, the breakup of the Soviet Union gave historians access to documents and other materials that had previously been off limits. As a result, just about everything anyone has claimed about his own conduct during the crisis has been called into question.
In “Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Knopf), Martin J.?Sherwin summarizes the “official” narrative of the “thirteen days” as follows. Members of ExComm, through “their careful consideration of the challenge, their firmness in the face of terrifying danger, and their wise counsel,” steered the world to a peaceful resolution of a potentially civilization-ending conflict. Nothing, he writes, “could be further from the truth.” The guidance J.F.K. received was, for the most part, lousy. Some of it was loony. Had he heeded ExComm’s “wise counsel,” chances are I would not be writing this, or you reading it. As the President told a friend not long after the crisis ended, “You have no idea how much bad advice I had in those days.”
As it happens, much of this bad advice came from the author of “Thirteen Days.” “Oh, shit! Shit! Shit!” the supposedly levelheaded Attorney General exclaimed when informed that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba. “Those sons of bitches Russians.”
At the time of the missile crisis, R.F.K. headed the awkwardly named Special Group (Augmented), which oversaw the Kennedy Administration’s covert efforts to topple Fidel Castro. Among the many schemes that had been suggested to this end were Operation Free Ride, which would have dropped plane tickets on Cuba, good for a one-way trip to Mexico City or Caracas, and Operation Bingo, which would have staged an attack on the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay in order to justify a counterattack. On Day One of the missile crisis, R.F.K. proposed his own version of Bingo. The U.S. should “sink the Maine again or something” to provide cover for invading Cuba. So much for high-mindedness.
Sherwin, a professor of history at George Mason University, is the author of two previous books on the development of atomic weapons. In his view, it’s not just the claims of those who were directly involved in the missile crisis that need to be re?valuated; it’s also the claims of many who were not. This latter group includes President Dwight D.?Eisenhower.
In the lead-up to the 1960 election, the Eisenhower Administration had started to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala; the plan—supposedly top-secret—was that the exiles would return home as a guerrilla force and rally the disenchanted Cuban public to depose Castro. The plan’s cover was quickly blown. In October, 1960, a Guatemalan newspaper reported that the C.I.A. had spent a million dollars on a property that it intended to use for training exercises.
Eisenhower didn’t care for Kennedy. During the campaign, he had declared privately that he’d do “almost anything to avoid turning the country over” to him, and, to his staff, he referred to J.F.K. as “Little Boy Blue.” According to Sherwin, Eisenhower wanted Kennedy to feel compelled to carry out his no longer secret plan. At a meeting the day before J.F.K.’s Inauguration, Eisenhower told the incoming President that it was the new Administration’s “responsibility” to do “whatever is necessary” to get rid of Castro. “We cannot let the present government there go on,” Eisenhower reportedly said.
Kennedy had used Cuba against his opponent—Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s Vice-President. “If you can’t stand up to Castro, how can you be expected to stand up to Khrushchev?” he’d chided. This boxed Kennedy in; if he rejected Eisenhower’s plan, he’d be criticized on precisely the ground he’d criticized Nixon. The result, of course, was a fiasco. On April 17, 1961, the exiles landed on the beach at Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. It took Castro’s forces less than two days to round up or kill them all. Kennedy at first tried to deny that the U.S. had anything to do with the scheme, but that lie was quickly exposed. The director of the C.I.A., Allen Dulles, had assumed that, once the operation got under way, Kennedy would send the U.S. military to support the ill-prepared guerrillas. But the President refused to do so.