The Cuban Missile Crisis

On the other side of the world, “ … the Cuban Revolution of 1952-59 had forced autocratic President Fulgencio Batista, an ally of the United States, into exile. He was replaced by the Communist movement led by Fidel Castro, the son of a wealthy farmer. Castro adopted leftist, anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana. After participating in rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he planned the overthrow of the Cuban President.

This overthrow severed the country’s formerly strong links with the US – after expropriating the assets of US corporations – and developing links with the Soviet Union, with whom, at the time, the United States was engaged in the most dangerous period of the Cold War. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was concerned at the direction Castro’s government was taking, and in March 1960, Eisenhower allocated $13.1 million to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to plan Castro’s overthrow. The CIA proceeded to organize the operation with the aid of various Cuban counter-revolutionary forces, training Brigade 2506 in Mexico. Following his election in 1960, Democrat President John F. Kennedy was informed of the invasion plan and gave his consent.

Brigade 2506 fronted the armed wing of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (DRF) which intended to overthrow the Communist government of Fidel Castro. Launched from Guatemala, the invading force was defeated within three days by the Cuban armed forces, under the direct command of the Prime Minister of Cuba, Fidel Castro. How could this happen?

On January 28, 1961, President Kennedy was briefed, together with all the major departments, on the latest plan (code-named Operation Pluto), which involved 1,000 men landed in a ship-borne invasion at Trinidad, Cuba, about 180 miles south-east of Havana, at the foothills of the Escambray Mountains in Sancti Spiritus province. Kennedy authorized the active departments to continue, and to report progress. 

Trinidad had good port facilities, it was close to many existing counter-revolutionary activities, it had an easily defensible beachhead, and it offered an escape route into the Escambray Mountains. When that scheme was subsequently rejected by the [Kennedy appointed] Dean Rusk led State Department, for reasons that are extremely elusive even to this day, the CIA was tasked to propose an alternative plan.

The invasion landing area was changed to beaches bordering the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province, 100 miles south-east of Havana, and east of the Zapata peninsula. The problem with this site was that it was surrounded by swampland – providing no route of escape even though it had a better landing beach.

As for senior White House aides, most of them disagreed with the new plan as well, but Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that Kennedy went with what the CIA had to say about the new plan. As for himself, he said that he “. . . did not serve President Kennedy very well . . .” and that he should have voiced his opposition louder. He concluded that “. . . I should have made my opposition clear in the meetings themselves because he [Kennedy] was under pressure from those who wanted to proceed. When faced with biased information from the CIA and quiet advisors, it is no wonder that the President decided to go ahead with the operation.

On April 4, 1961, President Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs plan (also known as Operation Zapata), because it had an airfield that did not need extending to handle bomber operations, it was farther away from large groups of civilians than the Trinidad plan, and it was less “noisy” militarily, which would make any future denial of direct US involvement more plausible.

However, the Cuban security apparatus knew the invasion was coming???!!!, via their secret intelligence network, as well as loose talk by members of the brigade, some of which was heard in Miami, and was repeated in US and foreign newspaper reports.

Nevertheless, days before the invasion, multiple acts of sabotage were carried out, such as the El Encanto fire, an arson attack in a department store in Havana on April 13 that killed one shop worker.

 The Cuban government also had been warned by senior KGB agents Osvaldo Sanchez Cabrera and ‘Aragon’, who died violently before and after the invasion, respectively. The general Cuban population was not well informed, except for CIA-funded Radio Swan because, as of May 1960, almost all means of public communication were in the government’s hands.

On April 29, 2000, a Washington Post article, “Soviets Knew Date of Cuba Attack”, reported that the CIA had information indicating that the Soviet Union knew the invasion was going to take place, and [therefore had a strategic advantage over] Kennedy. On April 13, 1961, Radio Moscow broadcast an English-language newscast, predicting the invasion “in a plot hatched by the CIA” using paid “criminals” within a week. The invasion took place four days later.

David Ormsby-Gore, British Ambassador to the US, stated that British intelligence analysis, as made available to the CIA, indicated that the Cuban people were predominantly behind Castro, and that there was no likelihood of mass defections or insurrections.

Incredibly, despite all of chatter about the impending “secret” operation, at about 00:00 on April 17, 1961, the two CIA landing ships, Blagar and Barbara J, each with a CIA ‘operations officer’ and an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) of five frogmen, entered the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba. They headed a force of four transport ships (Houston, Río Escondido, Caribe and Atlántico) carrying about 1,400 Cuban exile ground troops of Brigade 2506, plus tanks and other vehicles in the landing craft.

At about 01:00, the Blagar, as the battlefield command ship, directed the principal landing at Playa Girón (code-named Blue Beach), led by the frogmen in rubber boats followed by troops from Caribe in small aluminum boats, then other landing craft. The Barbara J, leading Houston, similarly landed troops 25 miles further northwest at Playa Larga (code-named Red Beach), using small fiberglass boats.

Unloading troops at night was delayed, due to engine failures and boats damaged by unforeseen coral reefs. The few militia in the area succeeded in warning Cuban armed forces via radio soon after the first landing, before the invaders overcame their token resistance.

A day later, without the direct air support promised by the U.S., and short of ammunition, Brigade 2506 ground forces retreated to the beaches in the face of considerable onslaught from Cuban government artillery, tanks and infantry. Late on April 19, destroyers USS Eaton (code-named Santiago) and USS Murray (code-named Tampico) moved into Cochinos Bay to evacuate retreating Brigade soldiers from beaches, before firing from Cuban army tanks caused the operational commander, Commodore Crutchfield to order a withdrawal.

Aircrews killed in action totaled 6 from the Cuban air force, 10 Cuban exiles and 4 American airmen. Paratrooper Eugene Herman Koch was killed in action, and the American airmen shot down were Thomas W. Ray, Leo F. Baker, Riley W. Shamburger and Wade C. Gray. In 1979, the body of Thomas ‘Pete’ Ray was repatriated from Cuba. In the 1990s, the CIA admitted to his links to the agency, and awarded him the Intelligence Star which signifies a fallen CIA officer. In all, 114 Cuban exiles from Brigade 2506 were killed in action.

The final toll in Cuban armed forces during the conflict was 176 killed in action. Other Cuban forces casualties were between 500 and 4,000 (killed, wounded or missing). The airfield attacks on April 15 left 7 Cubans dead and 53 wounded.

“Havana gleefully noted the wealth of the captured invaders: 100 plantation owners, 67 landlords of apartment houses, 35 factory owners, 112 businessmen, 179 lived off unearned income and 194 ex-soldiers of Batista.”Life Magazine

On April 19, 1961, at least seven Cubans plus two CIA-hired US citizens (Angus K. McNair and Howard F. Anderson) were executed in Pinar del Rio province, after a two-day trial. On April 20, Humberto Sori Marin was executed at Fortaleza de la Cabana, having been arrested on March 18, following infiltration into Cuba with 14 tons of explosives.

Between April and October 1961, hundreds of executions took place in response to the invasion. They took place at various prisons, including the Fortaleza de la Cabaña and El Moro Castle. Infiltration team leaders and more than one hundred other insurgents were executed.

About 1,202 of the Brigade 2506 members were captured, of which nine died from asphyxiation during transfer to Havana in a closed truck. In May 1961, Fidel Castro proposed to exchange the surviving Brigade prisoners for 500 large farm tractors, valued at $28 million.

On September 8, 1961, 14 Brigade prisoners were convicted of torture, murder and other major crimes committed in Cuba before the invasion, five being executed and nine jailed for 30 years. On March 29, 1962, 1,179 men were put on trial for treason. On 7 April 1962, all were convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. On 14 April 1962, 60 wounded and sick prisoners were freed and transported to the US.

On December 21, 1962, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro and James B. Donovan, the same US lawyer who had negotiated the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Able for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in April 1962, aided by Milan C. Miskovsky, a CIA legal officer, signed an agreement to exchange 1,113 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine, sourced from private donations and from companies expecting tax concessions.

On December 24, 1962, some prisoners were flown to Miami, others following on the ship African Pilot, plus about 1,000 family members also allowed to leave Cuba. On December 29, 1962, President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline attended a “welcome back” ceremony for Brigade 2506 veterans at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.

In August 1961, during an economic conference of the Organization of American States in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Che Guevara sent a note to Kennedy via Richard N. Goodwin, a secretary in the White House. It said: “Thanks for Playa Girón. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.””

While most of the criticism of the “Bay of Pigs” operation by the progressive/liberals in the press and academia has been leveled at Allen Dulles, the Eisenhower appointee as Director of the Central intelligence Agency, a simple review of the bidding in the fiasco provides a more balanced view.

The plan had originated in April 1960 and the CIA had about nine (9) months to develop the plan and train the participants before the nascent Kennedy administration rejected it and ordered a new plan – to be ready in only two (2) months. With their best landing option rejected, the CIA chose an “acceptable” site – the Bay of Pigs.

Allen Dulles later stated that CIA planners believed that once the troops were on the ground, Kennedy would authorize any action required to prevent failure – as former Army General and then President Eisenhower had done in Guatemala in 1954 after that invasion looked as if it would collapse.

After the collapse of the invasion, Kennedy ordered a comprehensive review of the entire episode. It concluded that the planning process, including the evaluation phase within the White House which denied the CIA its primary landing site, the execution and the performance of several White House aides [still labeled in the mythology of the Kennedy administration as “the best and brightest” that America had], as well as the overall CIA performance had been inadequate. The subsequent changes put in place are a prima facie indication that there was enough blame to go around and that the failure cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Allen Dulles.

Because of the timid performance by Democrat President Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a personal meeting between Kennedy and the leader of the Soviets, Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, it was determined by the Soviets that the time was ripe to exploit America’s apparent strategic weakness – its leadership – and attempt to checkmate American nuclear armaments by placing Soviet nuclear weapons only 90 miles from the American mainland. What followed became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba. It played out on television worldwide and was the closest the Cold War ever came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

In response to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and the presence of American Jupiter class ballistic missiles in  Italy and Turkey targeted against the USSR with Moscow within range, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to agree to Castro’s request to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter future harassment of Cuba.

The Soviet leadership believed, based on their perception of Kennedy’s lack of confidence during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, that he would avoid confrontation and accept the missiles as a fait accompli. An agreement was reached during a secret meeting between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro in July and construction on a number of missile launch facilities started later that summer. This time however, Kennedy’s [chastised] team would be up to the task.

These missile preparations were confirmed when an Air Force U-2 spy plane produced clear photographic evidence of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile facilities. An election was underway in the U.S. and the White House had denied Republican charges that it was ignoring dangerous Soviet missiles 90 miles from Florida.

From the U.S. position of military “parity” with the Soviets, Kennedy concluded that attacking Cuba by air would signal the Soviets to presume “a clear line” to conquer Berlin. Kennedy also believed that United States’ allies would think of the US as “trigger-happy cowboys” who lost Berlin because they could not peacefully resolve the Cuban situation. [No historical evidence has been published to support either of these hypotheses.]

He ordered the full naval blockade of Cuba, announced that the United States would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the USSR.

At the same time, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion was the only solution. They believed that the Soviets would not attempt to stop the US from conquering Cuba [the logistics would have been impossible and Cuba was not essential to the survival of Mother Russia]. Kennedy was skeptical, stating;

“They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can’t, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.”

On October 25, it was announced that the missiles in Cuba were still actively being worked on. This report was later verified by a CIA report that suggested there had been no slow-down at all. In response, Kennedy issued Security Action Memorandum 199, authorizing the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR [Supreme Allied Command Europe] (which had the duty of carrying out first air strikes on the Soviet Union). During the day, the Soviets responded to the blockade by turning back 14 ships presumably carrying offensive weapons.

Also on October 25, US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin with the photographic evidence in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles.

Ambassador Zorin refused to answer. The next day at 10:00 pm EDT, the United States raised the readiness level of SAC (Strategic Air Command) forces to DEFCON 2 – one step from a war posture for the only confirmed time in US post-war history.

While America’s  B-52 nuclear-capable strategic bombers went on continuous airborne alert, the B-47 medium bombers were dispersed to various military and civilian airfields, and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes’ notice. One-eighth of SAC’s 1,436 bombers were on airborne alert, some 145 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert, while the United States Air Defense Command (ADC) redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours with one-third maintaining 15-minute alert status. 

Twenty-three nuclear-armed B-52s were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union so that the latter might observe that the US was serious. The commander of Homestead Air Force base in South Florida, General Jack J. Catton later estimated that about 80% of SAC’s planes were ready for launch during the crisis. 

On October 27, the US informed its NATO allies that “the situation is growing shorter … the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary.” To add to the concern, at 6 am the CIA reported that all missiles in Cuba were ready for action.

Later on that same day, what the White House later called “Black Saturday,” the US Navy dropped a series of “signaling  depth charges” (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades) on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was “hulled” (a hole in the hull from depth charges or surface fire). 

Arguably the most dangerous moment in the crisis was only recognized during the Cuban Missile Crisis Havana Conference in October 2002. Attended by many of the veterans of the crisis, they all learned that on October 27, 1962, the USS Beale had tracked and dropped signaling depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet Project 641 (NATO designation  Foxtrot) [diesel powered] submarine.

Running out of air, the Soviet submarine was surrounded by American warships and desperately needed to surface. An argument broke out among three officers on the B-59, including submarine captain Valentin Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Deputy brigade commander Captain 2nd rank (US Navy Commander rank equivalent) Vasili Arkhipov. An exhausted Savitsky became furious and ordered that the nuclear torpedo on board be made combat ready.

Accounts differ about whether Commander Arkhipov convinced Savitsky not to make the attack, or whether Savitsky himself finally concluded that the only reasonable choice left open to him was to come to the surface. During the conference, Robert McNamara stated that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

After a period of tense, long-range negotiations [by cable] an agreement was reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba without direct provocation. Secretly, the US also agreed that it would dismantle all US-built Jupiter MRBMs, which were deployed in Turkey and Italy against the Soviet Union but were not known to the public.

When all offensive missiles and Ilyushin Il-28 light bombers had been withdrawn from Cuba, the blockade was formally ended on November 20, 1962. The negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union pointed out the necessity of a quick, clear, and direct communication line between Washington and Moscow. As a result, the telephone hotline (known as the “red phone”) was established.”

Because of the strategic missteps of the early 1960s, Cuba has remained a communist outpost less than 100 miles from America’s shores for more than 50 years. It has fomented communist revolutions throughout Central and South America and Africa and provided strategic assistance to the Soviet Union before it collapsed and now supports Communist Chinese efforts to destabilize America’s economic, diplomatic and military relationships with nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite overtures from the Obama administration about normalizing relations, Cuba still holds thousands of political prisoners and many fugitives from American justice. It also owes reparations to the American companies from whom it stole businesses that they had legitimately built with the approval of a sovereign nation.

Next time: Vietnam

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