Why Nuclear Missiles in Cuba?
Over the course of the past 50 years, many have wondered what motivated the Soviet Union to push the world to the brink of nuclear war by placing its nuclear missiles in Cuba. A recent seminar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami (ICCAS), analyzed the motivations behind Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decision to introduce intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. The most controversial issue was whether the missiles were brought to Cuba to defend Castro’s Marxists revolution or to improve Soviet nuclear strategic disadvantage.
Michael Dobbs, author of the book, “One Minute until Midnight” (2008), initiated the debate stating that: “I do not think that the strategic reason was the main motivation…Castro had convinced Khrushchev that they were in mortal danger and that something had to be done to protect him.”
Svetlana Savranskaya, co-author with Sergo Mikoyan (son of Anastas Mikoyan) of a book that details the presence of tactical nuclear (short range) missiles in Cuba, coincides with Dobb’s argument that Khrushchev’s motivation was protecting the Castro regime.
These arguments have certain validity in the Cold War context. However, in the 1990s with the onset of Glasnost, documents and testimonies of high level Soviet officials began to surface, disclosing crucial and new information. The new evidence reveals that Nikita Khrushchev’s essential motivation to deploy 42 medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and over 24 intermediate range missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba was to improve the Soviet ballistic inferiority of 1 to 10 with the U.S.
The deployment in Cuba of the MRBM with a range of 2,200 nautical miles and IRBM with a range of 1,100 nautical miles capable of destroying American cities in a few minutes (10-12 minutes), gave the Kremlin a powerful atomic punch, narrowing the missile inferiority and providing huge strategic advantages.
Yuri Pavlov, former head of the Soviet Latin America’s Foreign Ministry and responsible for Soviet-Cuban relations, wrote in 1994: “the Soviet leadership decided to use the island in order to bring a substantial part of United States territory within range of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Khrushchev, who initiated this idea, hoped that it would help to address the imbalanced strategic nuclear force…” (1)
Anastas I. Mikoyan, deputy Prime Minister, expressed doubts about Khrushchev’s dangerous miscalculation of the missile deployment in Cuba. In his memoirs published in 1999, he stated that “the missile crisis was pure adventure from Khrushchev.” (2) The Russian scholar Georgy A. Arbatov, in his memoirs published in 1991, describes the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba as not only a miscalculation, but also a crime. (3)
Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to Washington, and a decisive figure with Robert Kennedy in finding a solution to the crisis, stated, in his memoirs published in 1995, that Khrushchev’s motives for the missiles deployment in Cuba was strategic. He wrote: “the move was part of a broader geopolitical strategy to achieve greater parity with the United States.” (4)
The idea of placing intermediate nuclear missiles in Cuba dawned on Khrushchev while vacationing in the Crimea, across the Black Sea from Turkey, where the U.S. had the obsolete “Jupiter” rockets. By this time, the Polaris nuclear submarines with highly accurate missiles were deployed close to the Soviet Union, including the Mediterranean Sea. Also, Washington had already begun talks with Turkey for the dismantling of the “Jupiter” missile sites.
Khrushchev and the Soviet military knew that by positioning the offensive weapons in Cuba, they were capable of delivering the missiles through the U.S.’s soft underbelly, avoiding interference from the American early warning defense system. If successful, Khrushchev could have upset the strategic balance with a powerful psychological threat of nuclear destruction, 90 miles from the U.S.
In addition to the MRBM and IRBM, the Kremlin placed tactical nuclear missiles (for short range defensive needs). Additionally, the Soviets also sent four of their best elite regiments, twenty four batteries of anti-aircrafts SAM missiles, forty two MIG-21 interceptors and forty two IL-28 bombers. (5)
The messenger of the Soviet decision was Ambassador Aleksandr Alexeyev, accompanied by Marshal Sergei Biryuzov. Alexeyev was a veteran KGB agent that first traveled to Havana on April, 1959 as a Tass News correspondent. According to declassified KGB-Presidium documents, he was one of the initial conduits between Moscow and Havana planning and implementing Fidel Castro’s move to join the Communist bloc. (6)
On the issue of Khrushchev defensive motivation, Alexeyev, who had a vital role, witnessed Fidel Castro’s reaction to the Soviet initiative and confirmed that Castro clearly understood from the very beginning the offensive-strategic nature of the Kremlin’s move. Castro responded apocalyptically: “That is a very risky move…but if making such a decision is indispensable for the Socialist bloc, I think I am in favor of placing the missiles in our island. This way we will be able to be the first victims of the encounter against imperialism.” (7)
By the summer of 1962, the Cuban clandestine movement became aware of the missiles on the island and shared the information with U.S. officials. On August 17, CIA Director John McCone stated at a high level meeting in Washington that circumstantial evidences suggested that the Soviets where constructing intermediate offensive missile installations in Cuba. Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara disagreed, arguing that the buildup was purely defensive. (8)
On October 14, a U-2 aircraft took photos that provided the first hard evidence of MRBM and IRBM deployed in Cuba. On October 22 at 7 p.m., President Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised speech disclosing that Soviet nuclear missiles were in Cuba, announcing a strict quarantine of all offensive weapons being shipped to the island and warning Moscow that if they were not immediately withdrawn, the U.S. was determined to remove them by force.
Dobrynin knew that the Kremlin was caught empty handed by the forceful American reaction. In his memoirs he said “the fatal miscalculation was made by Khrushchev himself. He did not anticipate that his adventurous thrust would be discovered in time for Kennedy to organize a sharp reaction, including the threat of a direct confrontation. He had no fallback plan to deal with such a reverse and was cutting short his political career…the resolution of the crisis need not have been seen as such an inglorious retreat for him.” (9)
Fidel Castro’s violent personality manifested itself during the crisis when he urged Khrushchev to commence a nuclear attack against the United States. It was obvious that Cuba would have become the first victim, but despite this fact, Castro called on the Soviets to start a war. (10)
On March 1963, five months after the humiliating Soviet dismantling and withdrawing of missiles from Cuba, Castro prone to rewrite historical events, explained Khrushchev’s decision. He stated to the French newspaper LeMonde “they said that accepting them [missiles] we would be reinforcing the socialist bloc…we estimated we could not decline.” And then Castro added: “it was not to assure our defense.” (11)
If Cuba’s defense, as stated by Michael Dobbs, was Khrushchev’s principal motivation, then the Soviet Union did not have to deploy intermediate nuclear missiles. The Soviets could have signed and made public a military alliance with Cuba, or made Cuba a member of the Warsaw Pact, offering East European military protection. The Soviets had also deployed in Cuba short range tactical nuclear missiles. Any of these actions would have given pause to the American president. It is obvious that the deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles went beyond the boundaries of a defensive stance and had a strategic motivation.
In the early 1960’s, the effectiveness of missiles decreased with distance and significantly increased with proximity. The more than 42 nuclear warheads represented a threat to the lives of millions of Americans. If allowed to remain in Cuba, they would have become weapons of blackmail in the hands of a reckless leader. It is evident that after the Cuban missile crisis, and even before, the Kremlin leadership clearly understood that the Cuban revolution’s survival was not worth risking a nuclear war with the U.S.
(1) Yuri Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959-1991 (1994) p.
*Pedro Roig is senior consultant at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. Dr. Roig has taught Cuban history courses at various institutions. Former director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) – Radio & TV Marti. He holds a Masters of Arts degree from University of Miami and a Juris Doctor Degree from St. Thomas University. He has written several books including “The Death of a Dream: A History of Cuba” and “Marti: The Cuban Struggle for Freedom.” He is a veteran of the Brigade 2506.
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