The Day Nuclear War Almost Broke Out

“In the nearly sixty years since the Cuban missile crisis, the story of near-catastrophe has only grown more complicated. What lessons can we draw from such a close call?”
“…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?”


Photo by Darrell-Ann/ Flickr – Creative Commons

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 reëvaluated; 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.

Following the debacle, some Kennedy confidants falsely claimed that they’d opposed the plan. The President was enraged by this duplicity, and there’s some speculation that this was what prompted him to install the secret taping apparatus in the West Wing. Eisenhower, for his part, insisted throughout his life that he had never passed on a “plan” to invade Cuba, a claim Sherwin likens to Bill Clinton’s, vis-à-vis Monica Lewinsky, that “there’s nothing going on between us.” (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Clinton later explained.)

A lesson Kennedy seems to have taken from the Bay of Pigs—in addition to the importance of keeping good records—was that even the most knowledgeable advisers can screw things up royally. After the Bay of Pigs, “he was more skeptical of the recommendations which came to him from the experts,” Ted Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s closest aides, later reported. This would serve J.F.K. well when it came time for him to deal with ExComm.

Khrushchev lit on the idea of sending missiles to Cuba almost exactly a year after the Bay of Pigs. He was convinced, correctly, that the U.S. was still intent on ousting Castro, and he wanted to prevent that from happening. Surely the Americans would think twice about attacking Cuba if they knew it was equipped with nuclear warheads. Also, just a year earlier, the U.S. had installed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Turkey, a Soviet neighbor, so he thought that missiles in Cuba would right the balance of terror.

Before the Americans realized what was going on, Khrushchev had managed to ship forty thousand troops and more than a hundred and sixty nuclear warheads to Cuba. “American intelligence was good for nothing,” General Anatoly Gribkov, the Soviet General Staff’s chief of operations at the time, crowed years later. The tipoff finally came from spy-plane photographs.

ExComm, whose members included Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, spent its first few sessions debating how best to destroy the missiles. Should there be a declaration of war? Air strikes on the sites? No one knew if any of the missiles were operational, which was obviously a major intelligence shortcoming. Should air strikes be followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba? In that case, ninety thousand troops would have to be assembled, and it was hard to imagine how such preparations could be kept secret. McNamara warned that any form of “direct military action” would prompt a Soviet response along the same lines. But this might be “worth the price,” he opined. “Perhaps we should pay that.” R.F.K. worried that, in the days between air strikes and the deployment of ground troops, international pressure against an invasion would build. Wasn’t there some way, he asked, to get an invasion “started, so that there wasn’t any turning back?”

A few days into the crisis, Kennedy began to pull away from his advisers. It was imperative to get the missiles out of Cuba, but it was also imperative to avoid a nuclear exchange—what he termed “the final failure.” He argued in favor of blockading Cuba, rather than invading it. (The “blockade” eventually became a “quarantine,” because the former assumes a state of war.)

What prompted the shift in Kennedy’s thinking? Sherwin gives much of the credit to Adlai Stevenson, J.F.K.’s Ambassador to the U.N.—and his former opponent for the 1960 Democratic nomination—who, notably, was not a member of ExComm. Early in the deliberations, Stevenson happened to attend a lunch at the White House for the Crown Prince of Libya. After the lunch, the President pulled him aside to show him the spy photographs.

“I suppose the alternatives are to go in by air and wipe them out, or to take other steps to render the weapons inoperable,” Kennedy said.

“Let’s not go into an air strike until we have explored the possibilities of a peaceful solution,” Stevenson replied. This hardly seems a novel idea, but, Sherwin maintains, it was “the first reaction of its kind to confront Kennedy.” Stevenson subsequently sent J.F.K. a memo advocating that diplomacy be pursued before attacks, which, in Sherwin’s account, “provided Kennedy with a blueprint to do exactly that.” In an interesting twist, Sherwin presents J.F.K.’s well-known dislike of Stevenson as evidence in support of his theory. “The psychology is complicated,” he acknowledges.

Despite J.F.K.’s (and Stevenson’s) best efforts, the world came perilously close to “the final failure” on day twelve of the thirteen—a Saturday. Even as Savitsky was ordering the “special ammunition” to be loaded, the situation on land was spinning out of control. On what became known as Black Saturday, an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and Khrushchev received a message from Castro that seemed to urge a nuclear strike against the U.S. (Castro’s thoughts, translated into Russian, were a bit hard for the Soviet Premier to decipher.) That evening, R.F.K. was charged with making an offer to the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. If the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, the Americans would pledge not to invade the island. As an added incentive, the U.S., in the next several months, would pull its missiles from Turkey. Key to the deal, Dobrynin was told, was that the provisions about Turkey be kept secret.

In fact, they were kept so secret that most members of ExComm were unaware of them. Johnson wasn’t informed that the President had traded away American warheads, even after he became President. The lesson L.B.J. seems to have drawn from the crisis was that Kennedy had succeeded by refusing to compromise. This would have deeply unfortunate consequences when it came time for Johnson to deal with North Vietnam.

In the fall of 1962, Sherwin was a junior officer in the U.S. Navy. As the air-intelligence officer for an anti-submarine-warfare training unit based in San Diego, he was the custodian of the deployment orders that the unit was to follow in case of war. On the day that Kennedy announced the quarantine, Sherwin was instructed to retrieve the orders from his office safe and deliver them to his commanding officer. As he recalls, the orders said that, in the event of war, the unit was to deploy to an airfield in Baja California. There were jokes that Baja would be a beautiful place to die.

“I did not know until I researched this book how close to death we had come,” Sherwin writes.

Sherwin makes much of the events aboard B-59, and focusses, in particular, on the role of Vasily Arkhipov, a Soviet Navy captain who happened to be travelling on the sub. Before Arkhipov set off for Cuba, he had already been involved in a nuclear disaster, as an officer on a vessel designated K-19. This was the U.S.S.R.’s first nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered submarine. It had been rushed into service in an effort to keep up with the Americans, and it was so danger-prone that its crew began to refer to it as “Hiroshima.” In the summer of 1961, K-19 was participating in exercises off the coast of Greenland when its reactor-coolant system failed. It had no backup system. K-19’s commander sent in crew members to repair the damage, knowing they were likely to receive lethal doses of radiation. Within days, eight of the crew members who had volunteered for the task were dead.

According to various accounts, it was Arkhipov who talked Savitsky down from firing B-59’s nuclear torpedo and, potentially, starting the Third World War. Sherwin suggests that, if it weren’t for Arkhipov’s experience off Greenland, he might not have stepped in. More fundamentally, Sherwin concludes, it was a matter of chance that war was averted. Arkhipov, he observes, could have been assigned to a different sub. Or the commander of one of the other subs could have decided to launch a torpedo. Or Adlai Stevenson could have skipped lunch at the White House, or the message from Castro to Khrushchev could have been further obscured in translation, or Khrushchev could have rejected the deal that R.F.K. proposed to Dobrynin. Had countless other possible decisions been made during those thirteen days, the crisis might have been remembered very differently—had there been anyone around to remember it. As E. B. White once put it, admittedly in another context, “Things might easily have gone the other way round, and none left to do the accounting.”

“Unanticipated events can happen no matter how carefully actions are planned,” Sherwin writes. “Avoiding their terrible consequences is often as much a matter of luck as it is of careful management.” This would be a discomfiting message in the best of times. It seems especially so right now. Just two weeks after Inauguration Day, the last remaining nuclear-arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia—the so-called New start—is set to expire. The Trump Administration has already scuttled the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—it withdrew from the accord last year—and its efforts on behalf of New start have been so halfhearted it seems likely to lapse, too. As the journal Arms Control Today noted, were this to happen there would “be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly five decades.” In case you need another reason to lie awake at night, there’s that. ♦


Scroll to top