The Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60: POSTMORTEMS
- Khrushchev: “We were truly on the verge of war”
- Left in the dark about missile exchange, Pentagon study drew wrong conclusions
- Castro: “A great indignation”
In the immediate aftermath of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met with the Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader, Antonin Novotny, and told him that “this time we really were on the verge of war,” according to minutes of their October 30, 1962, meeting posted today by the National Security Archive. “How should one assess the result of these six days that shook the world?” he pointedly asked, referring to the period between October 22, when President Kennedy announced the discovery of the missiles in Cuba, and October 28, when Khrushchev announced their withdrawal. “Who won?” he wondered.
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In Memoriam: John Prados, 1951-2022
We are deeply saddened to announce the passing yesterday of National Security Archive senior fellow Dr. John Prados, a celebrated military and intelligence historian who ranks as one of the founders of the Archive.
A prodigious author and researcher, John leaves behind a whole bookshelf of highly informed, well documented volumes covering military and intelligence history from the battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, through Dien Bien Phu, the entire Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, and so much more—including a before-its-time collection (on CDs) of presidential recordings from Roosevelt through Nixon. John also edited a number of well-received, major document compilations in our own Digital National Security Archive series, especially covering Vietnam and the history of the CIA. Among his 27 books, several of them translated into French, a highlight was his biography of William Colby, which argues that the CIA director’s accommodating approach to congressional investigations in the 1970s of Agency wrongdoing actually saved the CIA.
At frequent public events featuring notable former officials from the Vietnam era such as Robert McNamara, John could be counted on to calmly fend off temptations to color the historical record by presenting factual and analytical correctives that were utterly unassailable. Among his uncountable public presentations, he was a key scholar-participant in the historic Brown University-sponsored conference in Hanoi in 1997 where McNamara and a number of other former top U.S. and North Vietnamese decision-makers convened to hash out lessons from the American War.
Fellow historians have already begun registering the loss of one of their most prolific colleagues. James Hershberg, professor at The George Washington University, called him “one-of-a-kind” and an early influence dating back to the 1980s with the appearance of his seminal The Soviet Estimate. Fred Logevall of Harvard remembered him as “a historian’s historian” who “could appear intimidating at the lectern (and from the floor in the Q&A), but underneath was a warm man with a ready smile and a hearty laugh.”
Today, we remember John and his many contributions to transparency and national security scholarship in a special web posting to honor his life and work.
New Declassifications on Nuclear Weapons Safety and Security
- Sandia Official: Risk of Nuclear Accident “Cannot be Zero”
- Dept. of Energy Restricted Distribution of Safety History; Reclassified as Secret
- Air Force Resented Implications of “Goofproof” Nukes
A top safety official at a U.S. nuclear weapons lab wrote that “the public must be encouraged to realize that risks [of an unintentional nuclear detonation] cannot be zero and cannot ever be really known,” according to a newly released 2001 history of U.S. efforts to mitigate the dangers of accidental or unsanctioned weapons detonations. Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the National Security Archive, the history, written by former Sandia National Laboratories official William L. Stevens, describes years of efforts to remedy problems associated with the “sealed-pit” nuclear devices that were central to the U.S. stockpile and the possibility that “severe environmental insults” to such a weapon could induce a detonation.
Stevens’ report includes a wealth of information on systematic efforts by U.S. safety officials to minimize risks of accidents and mishaps, such as the danger of a “Deliberate Unauthorized Launch” by saboteurs. Over the years, Sandia’s safety experts detected and sought to remedy risks in a variety of weapons systems, from Polaris to Pershing II, but encountered resistance from officials in other agencies who were averse to rocking the boat or resented challenges to their authority.
Today’s posting also includes recently declassified post-mortems prepared by Sandia officials on major nuclear accidents. New FOIA releases by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration include reports on the notorious January 1961 B-52 accident near Goldsboro, N.C., in which a nuclear bomb became dislodged and was one switch away from detonation, and the investigation of the December 1964 Minuteman incident, in which a nuclear warhead fell 70 feet to the bottom of a missile silo. Sandia’s experts were especially concerned that “improper removal” of the warhead could have “serious consequences,” likely including an accidental detonation.
The Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60 - Getting to Know the Cubans: Part 2
- Che Guevara asked Soviet bloc to buy 4 million tons of Cuban sugar
- Cubans described exact scenario of future Bay of Pigs invasion; asked for military training; wanted USSR to think of Cuba as its own territory
- Please do not tell Fidel: Raúl Castro and Che Guevara hid communist party affiliations from Cuban leader
As Cuban-Soviet ties grew stronger from late 1960 through early 1961, the Cubans repeatedly asked for military assistance and security guarantees from the Soviets and expressed growing concern about the threat of a U.S. intervention, according to Russian archival documents published today by the National Security Archive. The Cubans described to the Soviet leadership detailed scenarios for a Bay-of-Pigs style invasion only months before the Kennedy administration mounted its failed covert operation in April 1961.
The newly published records of conversations between Cuban communist leaders and Soviet Presidium members during the visits of Cuban trade delegations in October 1960 and March 1961 provide indications that the Cuban revolution was gradually tilting in a more radical Marxist-Leninist direction, with the imposition of press controls and a crackdown on the Catholic church. Communist party leader Aníbal Escalante told the Soviets that both Raúl Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara were among the party's leaders—information not shared with Fidel Castro, who was not yet a committed Marxist.
The documents also depict a Soviet leadership caught unawares by the Bay of Pigs invasion, after having advised their Cuban allies to exercise restraint and caution, and shed light on Khrushchev’s motivations, later in 1962, when he decided to deploy nuclear weapons to Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviets felt they had let their allies down, having repeatedly assured the Cubans that the U.S. would not invade, and became increasingly worried about the defense of Cuba.
Visit the National Security Archive website to read the documents featured in today's posting and other publications from our Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60 series.
The Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60
The Most Dangerous Day
- Joint Chiefs: “The president has a feeling that time is running out”
- Cascade of human errors, nuclear-armed flashpoints, on October 27 nearly started World War III by accident
- JFK: “always some SOB who doesn’t get the word”
The most dangerous 24 hours of the Cuban Missile Crisis came on Saturday, October 27, 1962, 60 years ago today, as the U.S. moved closer to attacking Cuba and nuclear-armed flashpoints erupted over Siberia, at the quarantine line, and in Cuba itself—a rapid escalation that convinced both John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to strike the deal that would stop events from further spiraling out of control.
The surviving notes of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting on that day, October 27, provide a six-and-a-half-hour cascade of crises where human error, miscalculation, reckless deployment of nuclear weapons, and testosterone ruled the day. The JCS notes from October and November 1962, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and published today by the National Security Archive, are all that survive after the Chiefs’ decision, in the 1970s, to destroy the tapes and transcripts from over two decades of JCS meetings.
The notes depict how top U.S. military officials reacted to the unfolding crisis in real time, including the shootdown of a U-2 spy plane over Cuba that afternoon—seen as a major escalation—while at the same time the JCS were unaware that U.S. naval forces were dropping grenades on a Soviet sub armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo near the quarantine line. As they continued to prepare for a full-scale invasion of Cuba, JCS chairman Maxwell Taylor told the Chiefs that President Kennedy was “seized with the idea of trading Turkish for Cuban missiles” and “has a feeling that time is running out.”
Today’s posting features the JCS notes along with photographs and additional context about the most dangerous day of the missile crisis, and the sequence of events that persuaded both Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach the trade that would ultimately end the superpower confrontation.