The Cuban Missile Crisis played out in the second half of October 1962. People generally know that it brought the world close to nuclear war but that in the end U.S. and Soviet leaders kept their heads and the world pulled through.
I remember as a young boy watching President Kennedy’s October 22 speech on our black and white TV set. I could tell from my parents’ reaction that things were bad. And essentially everything I’ve learned about the crisis since then has made me realize it was scarier than any of us realized.
Crisis and confusion: A deadly combination
Today, unfortunately, tensions are growing between the U.S. and Russia. A key takeaway from the 1962 crisis—one that is as relevant today as it was then—is that confusion, misunderstandings, and unexpected events can wreak havoc in a crisis. The sense of control leaders may have in these situations is frequently an illusion, and can be a dangerous one.
A key lesson that follows from that takeaway is that as tensions grow it is particularly important that the U.S. and Russia take steps to prevent crises from sparking an accidental or mistaken nuclear launch. The time to do that is now—before a crisis heats up and leads to disaster.
Here’s what can happen.
Six examples from the Cuban Missile Crisis
In early October 1962, the U.S. discovered the Soviets were shipping missiles to Cuba and building launch sites for them. The missiles could carry nuclear warheads and from Cuba could reach large parts of the U.S., including Washington DC.
After considering a range of options—including a full-scale invasion of the island—President Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba. His plan was to keep further Soviet military systems from reaching the island, with the goal of preventing the missiles from becoming operational—and doing so without sparking a shooting war.
(1) The illusion of control
Along with the blockade, Kennedy also raised the readiness level of U.S. military forces to Defense Condition (DEFCON) 3—two rungs up the escalation ladder from the peacetime level of DEFCON 5.
Raising the DEFCON level leads to movements of U.S. military forces around the world, which Soviet monitoring would observe. By carefully stepping up the DEFCON ladder, Kennedy intended to send a clear message to the Soviets that the U.S. was prepared to act, while showing control and restraint and not exacerbating the crisis. Things seemed under control.
But two days later, on October 24, the president’s careful plan was upended when the commanders of U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Air Defense Command (ADC) announced they were moving their forces up another step to DEFCON-2—one step below launching a nuclear strike. Incredibly, they had the authority to do this without presidential approval. This is the only known time U.S. forces have reached this alert level.
Kennedy was reportedly furious at this move, which he knew could escalate the crisis.
And things got worse on October 26. British Bomber Command had been carrying out a readiness exercise unrelated to the crisis. But because the crisis was heating up, the commander extended the exercise and moved his forces to the equivalent of DEFCON 2, ready to launch nuclear weapons in 15 minutes. As in the U.S., this was done without the authorization of central authorities. Again, Soviet intelligence would certainly have noticed these activities, and likely saw them as part of a broader plan by the U.S. and its allies to prepare for a nuclear strike.
In this case Soviet Premier Khrushchev sensed the situation was getting out of control and kept his forces from responding and further escalating the situation. But could the world count on the same reaction from, say, President Putin?
(2) The illusion of control #2
When Kennedy moved U.S. forces to DEFCON 3 one consequence was that the military loaded nuclear warheads onto U.S. long-range missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to get them ready to fire. Kennedy was not aware that one of the missiles at Vandenberg was scheduled to be launched on October 26 as part of a routine flight-testing program. That missile was given a dummy warhead and—despite the ongoing crisis and without the knowledge of the president—the test launch took place as scheduled. Soviet monitoring would likely have observed that nuclear warheads were being loaded onto the missiles, and they could well have seen this launch as the start of a nuclear attack.
(3) An unrelated air-sampling mission becomes a nuclear tripwire
That same day the U.S. sent a U2 spy plane from Alaska to collect air samples over the north pole to look for evidence of a Soviet nuclear test—an issue unrelated to the crisis. A bright aurora that night kept the pilot from getting good navigation readings from the stars, causing him to stray into Soviet air space—where he was detected and chased by Soviet fighter planes.
U.S. fighters took off to rescue him. The fighters were equipped with nuclear-tipped antiaircraft missiles, and the escalation to DEFCON 3 gave the pilots authority to decide on their own whether to use them against the Soviet planes. The U2 made it back to Alaska, and no nuclear weapons were fired. But U.S. officials were starting to see that even apparently unrelated activities threatened to spark the crisis into a nuclear war. Sec. of Defense McNamara grounded further air-sampling flights.
(4) An even closer call
An incident the next day was probably the closest call in the crisis. The Soviets sent four submarines to patrol the waters off Cuba. The Americans did not learn until decades later that the subs carried torpedoes tipped with Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons. Even worse, the submarine commanders were given the authority to fire them. And even worse than that, the subs were out of contact with Moscow and could only guess what was going on above them.
On October 27, the U.S. fleet discovered and surrounded one of the subs, and started dropping depth charges as a signal that the sub should surface. The submarine commander, still out of contact with Moscow and assuming the worst, decided to fire his so-called “special weapon” at the U.S. ships. The decision required a second officer on the sub to agree and provide his half of the key needed to fire the torpedo— which he did.
The only thing that stopped the launch was that the head of the submarine fleet, Vasilli Arkhipov, happened to be on board—and overruled his order. Like Stanislav Petrov, Arkhipov has also been “The Man Who Saved the World.”
(5) Confusion and coincidences
The next day an unexpected coincidence set off alarms. Radar operators in Moorestown, NJ, called NORAD to say their radar had detected an incoming missile attack launched from Cuba and headed for Florida. Rechecking the data confirmed the attack. Fortunately, before a response was initiated the expected detonation did not occur, and NORAD realized it was a false alarm. But the incident illustrates how several unexpected events can combine in unanticipated ways.
The problem occurred when a satellite rising over the horizon showed up on the site’s radar just when a test tape simulating a missile launch from Cuba was inserted in the computers to run a check on the software and displays at the radar facility. Moreover, the satellite appeared in just the location expected for a missile launch from Cuba. The odd coincidences of both the timing of these events and the location of the satellite led to confusion and the false alarm.
Normally there would have been two safety checks intended to avoid this confusion. The radar operators should have received notice of any satellites they might see, but the office that provided this notice had been distracted by other tasks due to the crisis. And other radars intended to be able to check the readings of the Moorestown radar were not operating at the time.
(6) A mysterious launch order—and another “man who saved the world”
A new story about the crisis surfaced recently, which—if the details are verified—implies we dodged yet another nuclear bullet during the crisis.
Six months before the crisis, the U.S. reportedly deployed 32 cruise missiles on Okinawa, a Japanese island the U.S. occupied following World War II. The 2,000-km range missiles were armed with 1.1 megaton nuclear warheads—some 70 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. So by late 1962, Cuba apparently wasn’t the only island hosting foreign nuclear missiles.
Just before dawn on October 28, the eight launch commanders of the Okinawa missiles received orders—containing all the proper codes—calling for all 32 missiles to be launched. Rechecking the orders confirmed the command. At least one of the launch commanders was reportedly preparing to fire.
Capt. William Bassett, the senior field commander on duty, had his doubts, in part because he had not gotten a message announcing the step up to DEFCON 1. He ordered that none of the missiles be launched until they received further validation of the order. He eventually confirmed that the order had been issued by mistake, although it is still not clear why or how it happened.
So William Bassett was apparently another “man who saved the world.”
The specific situations in 1962 are of course different than they are today, yet these incidents illustrate the kinds of things that can go wrong and cause problems, especially in a crisis.
You have to wonder how many more “men (or women) who saved the world” there will have to be before the U.S. and Russia change their nuclear policies so survival doesn’t rely on having the right person at the right time and place.
President Obama could be the next, and hopefully last, man who saved the world by acting now—before a crisis occurs—to take U.S. missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove U.S. options for launching on warning of a nuclear attack. That would be a real legacy.