The thirteen days that made the world tremble. The missiles in Cuba were revenge for the ill-fated mission of the Bay of Pigs and the attempt by the Soviets to set foot in America continent. It finished with the dismantling of the bases in exchange for a US promise not to invade Cuba.
It all began on April 17, 1961 when a group of 1,450 men, belonging to an anti-Castro force organized and supported by the CIA and the US military, landed on a Cuban beach to invade the island. The secrecy of the operation was very relative, and everyone knew everything, including Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader of Cuba. Castro, to counter the invasion, prepared a considerable military force of about 20,000 men and predisposed sighting patrols across the Cuban coast.
The landing was noted by some Cuban soldiers who immediately gave the alarm, so that the revolutionary army could readily line up to counter the anti-Castro forces. It ended with the defeat of the invaders who were almost all taken prisoner. They were released about two years later in exchange for $ 53 million in food and medicines that the US sent to Cuba in the form of humanitarian aid.
US president, elected in 1961, was John F. Kennedy. The young JFK, 43 years old at the time of the election, had already had to confront with the crisis of Berlin, where East Germany had built what became known as the “Berlin Wall“.
Kennedy, of Irish descent, was the first US president of the Catholic religion. He came from a rich and numerous family of Boston, Massachusetts. He was enlisted in the US Navy during World War II, despite a serious injury to the spine. Because of a collision with a Japanese destroyer his unit was sunk in the Pacific. The future president behaved on this occasion so brave contributing to the rescue of some of his buddies. His health was seriously affected for his efforts during the disaster and subsequent rescue. Only after a lot of care was able to heal but the pre-existing spinal injury was aggravated.
In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier, he had four children with her; The first daughter, Arabella died at birth, the second daughter was named Caroline, the third son John Jr., nicknamed John-John, died in a plane crash in 1999, the last son Patrick survived only two days.
In 1946, JFK was elected deputy in his Boston. Six years later he was appointed as senator representing Massachusetts. In 1960 he stood as a candidate of the Democratic Party for the White House against Richard Nixon of Republican Party and he won the election. On 20 January 1961 he was appointed president of the United States. His younger brother Robert, who had worked with him throughout his political career, was appointed Minister of Justice by the First.
Since 1956, the secretary of the Communist Party and prime minister of the Soviet Union was Nikita Khrushchev. He had stunned the Supreme Soviet with the secret speech to the Twentieth Congress that was an indictment against Stalin and Stalinism season. In 1957 the more conservative members of the Soviets tried to unseat him, and failed because Khrushchev had managed to gather around him the moderate majority leaders of Communist Party.
Khrushchev advocated peaceful coexistence with the enemy superpower, the United States. In 1959 the US Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow in the American National Exhibition occasion. He entered into personal interview with Khrushchev at the inauguration of the exhibition took place on July 24. The interview was called “kitchen debate” because it took place in the kitchen of a prefabricated house on show.
In September Khrushchev returned the visit by traveling for thirteen days in New York. On that occasion it became apparent as the head of the Kremlin regarded the US as opponents and not as “evil enemy”. He was still convinced that in the long run the superiority of the communist system would prevail over capitalism. This approach to the US caused the rupture of relations between the USSR and the Republic of China.
The third payer of the Cuban crisis was Fidel Castro. He had studied law at the University of Havana, during his studies he was able to appreciate several of his professors who adhered to an anti-imperialist movement. After the coup that had brought Fulgencio Batista at the head of the Cuban government, Fidel Castro filed a motion to the court accusing the same Batista of unconstitutional behavior. The motion was not accepted. On July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro responded by organizing an armed assault on the Moncado barracks. 80 revolutionaries were killed and Castro, defeated, was arrested. During the trial personally he delivered the speech in his defense in the famous phrase “history will absolve me”. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released in 1955 following an amnesty.
Castro, assisted by Che Guevara and other revolutionaries, began a guerrilla war against the forces of the dictator Batista. On the new year’s day of 1959 the dictator Batista left Cuba after a counter-offensive to which the entire Cuban army attended and in which the guerrillas of Castro turned out winners. The following day the revolutionary forces entered Havana. February 13, 1959 Fidel Castro became the leader of the revolutionary government of Cuba.
The revolutionary government established very strong political and trade relationship with the Soviet Union, which provided food and oil supplies to Cuba. Cuban refineries, in American hands, refused to work the oil coming from the USSR. It was necessary to the government proceed with the nationalization of the oil industry, who also followed the nationalization of huge landholdings in American hands. In 1961 the attempt the reactionary pro-US forces to overthrow the revolutionary government was made in this situation with the invasion that resulted in the defeat of the Bay of Pigs.
The Soviets, after the defeat of the reactionary forces, believed that American leadership was weakened. they believed of being able to take advantage of placing armed missile bases with nuclear warheads in Cuba, to create a thorn in the side of the empire opponent, and be able to influence their foreign policy.
In 1962 the construction began of nine Cuban missile bases designed to accommodate SS4 and SS5 missiles Skean atomic warhead with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometers. Although already in August US type U2 air had noticed the construction work and the gradual deployment of the missiles, only 22 October 1962, following a yet another survey, the United States publicly reported the establishment of missile bases by Soviets in the Caribbean island, which is only 200 km. from Florida.
Kennedy said that any launch of missiles from Cuba to the United States would be considered a direct attack by the Soviet Union, since the bases and missiles deployed in Cuba were under the exclusive control of Soviet officers, with immediate response of America against the Soviet Union. The US president also announced a naval blockade of Cuba, who was called to “quarantine” for diplomatic reasons, to stop shipments of weapons direct to the island. Each ship on route to Cuba would be stopped and inspected by US naval forces to check the contents.
The decision to conduct a naval blockade was long discussed among the president, his staff and the high command of US forces. Four options were examined: the bombing of Cuban bases, invasion of Cuba, naval blockade, appeal to the United Nations. The appeal to United Nations was immediately ruled out, for the uncertain outcome and the necessary long times; the Generals were more inclined to the invasion or the bombing, but John Kennedy decided to blockade.
In Moscow the military leaders of the Soviet armed forces were pressing for an immediate nuclear strike against the United States, however they were restrained by Nikita Khrushchev who, aware that a nuclear attack would cause an equal US reaction to the destruction of part of the Soviet Union, in particular the European zone of the same, considered possible a agreement with the US president.
On October 25 a extraordinary meeting was to the UNO to discuss the American naval blockade. After the speech of various ambassadors, mostly favorable to the USSR, and the speech of Soviet ambassador Zorin, who denied the presence of missiles in Cuba, the US delegate to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, considered a moderate in the American presidential staff and therefore ill-suited to attack severely Moscow, made a remarkable speech. Stevenson asked Zorin confirm that in Cuba there were no missiles. The ambassador, although he was reluctant to give a clear answer, was forced to confirm the absence of missiles. At this point Stevenson showed to a stunned assembly the photos that reproduced the nine Cuban missile sites with missiles deployed on ramps ready to be launched.
Eighteen Soviet ships were in the Atlantic which were in course for Cuba. They would reach the limit line of the naval blockade in a few days, crossing it the ships have been stopped by US units, with the consequence of a military response. The whole world waited with bated breath.
Even Pope John XXIII, aware of the gravity of the moment, interrupted the Ecumenical Council in progress in Rome just following the crisis, the pope issued a message, broadcast by Vatican Radio and personally delivered to the American Ambassador and the Soviet one at the Vatican. This message asked to consider the terrible responsibility of a nuclear war and urged the two countries to negotiate a way out for the sake of peace.
The interference of Soviet generals tried to move forward the military confrontation, but Khrushchev opened a secret diplomatic channel through his personal friend, former US ambassador to Moscow, Tommy Thompson. The former diplomat had sent to Nikita Khrushchev the proposal of Kennedy: dismantling the Cuban bases against the US commitment to renounce forever the invasion of the island.
The Kremlin sent the White House a first message restating the proposal made by Thompson, proposing the exchange between the renunciation of the bases e the renunciation of the invasion. But the next morning came another message from Moscow, which required addition to the commitment of non-invasion of Cuba also the dismantling of US missile bases in Italy and Turkey. This second message does not seem written by Khrushchev. The American experts wondered about what really was going on Moscow.
The Kennedy staff decided, with a happy intuition, to respond to the first message, completely ignoring the second message, with the acceptance of the agreed conditions. On October 28 surprisingly there was a positive response from Moscow.
Meanwhile seventeen of the eighteen Soviet ships had reversed course retracing their steps, there was only one ship continued its rout to Cuba, it was escorted by a Soviet nuclear submarine, determined to force the blockade. There was also a warning salvo fired by US ships against the Soviet ship. But it was October 28, the day that the two superpowers had agreed to the deal, and therefore the Soviet ship stopped its engines and reversed course.
In the days after the Soviet Union removed the missile bases from Cuba and, demonstrating the return home of the missiles, ships transporting them showed their cargo to US reconnaissance helicopters, removing protective covers from the missiles.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro, who had pressed throughout the duration of the crisis because 140 nuclear missiles on the Cuban soil were launched against the United States, sarcastically called “strip tease” what did the Soviet ships discovering the missiles for verification.
After about six months, Americans dismantled also their missile bases in Italy and in Turkey with the official reason that they were technologically outdated.
The Cuban crisis marked a positive development in relations between the two superpowers that had touched the atomic tragedy. The “red phone” was established to prevent new serious crisis, a direct line between the Kremlin and the White House. The two superpowers no longer came to a point so close to the warfare. since then it was established the tacit rule that each was sovereign in their own backyard, backyard naturally as area of influence.
(Top photo: John F. Kennedy – White House Press Office – 1961)
Leopoldo Nuti (ed.), I «Missili di ottobre»: La Storiografia Americana e la Crisi Cubana dell’Ottobre 1962., Milano: LED, 1994
Leonardo Campus, I sei giorni che sconvolsero il mondo: La crisi dei missili di Cuba e le sue percezioni internazionali, Le Monnier, Firenze, 2014
Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.