Miscalculations Based On Faulty Intelligence:  Book Review of Nuclear Folly

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/03/23/miscalculations-based-on-faulty-intelligence-book-review-of-nuclear-folly/

Nuclear Folly:  A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis
By Serhii Plokhy

April 2021
464 pages
W.W. Norton


With President Vladimir Putin putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert several weeks ago, what book could be timelier than Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly, an outstanding narrative of those desperate days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962?  

At the time I was a freshman at Williams College in the Berkshires. I can still remember my classmates in our dormitory huddled around the radio in our Junior Advisor’s room listening to President John F. Kennedy’s speech, in which he described the possibility of global thermonuclear war. As a callow youth, I wondered, along with my dormmates, whether our presence in the Berkshire mountains in western Massachusetts would keep us out of the blast range of missiles targeting the cities on the East Coast.

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most popular account being Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir Thirteen Days, which was turned into a movie starring Kevin Costner. Many of the accounts give flattering portraits of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and the key government officials who supposedly caused Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to “blink first.” Blinking first meant that Khrushchev was induced to withdraw Russian missiles, nuclear weapons, and troops from Cuba in exchange for the commitment of the United States not to invade Cuba (and to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey six months later).

But secret records from the time tell a different story. Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy uses previously classified KGB files released in Ukraine and the tapes that President Kennedy made of the ExCom proceeding (undisclosed to the participants) to show how the players stumbled from miscalculation to miscalculation and from mistake to mistake. Plokhy describes in this vivid and well-researched account how often U.S. and Soviet leaders misread each other and made decisions based on faulty information. He also demonstrates how close to nuclear catastrophe the world came. He shows how it was only luck — and the fear of global thermonuclear war by both Russians and Americans — that prevented a nuclear holocaust.

The faulty information relied upon by U.S. leaders is head-scratching. For example, U.S. intelligence pinned the number of Russian troops in Cuba in October 1962 at 10,000. In fact, 43,000 Soviet troops had been transported to Cuba during the summer of 1962.

The option favored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to resolve the crisis, led by fiery General Curtis LeMay, was an armed invasion of Cuba by U.S. troops and an air bombardment. That would have been disastrous. Not only did the United States grossly underestimate the Russian troop strength on the island, but more importantly, the Russians had already brought nine tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba to use against an invasion force. Moreover, Khrushchev had actually given the go/no decision to the Soviet commander for use of the tactical nukes in case of a U.S. invasion. So nuclear war could have started without even the direct say-so of one of the leaders of the two countries.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came about because of blunders by both sides. In April 1961, three months after he took office, President Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-trained Cuban exiles who had been living in the United States. It failed, disastrously. Not only were the Cuban exiles stymied, but Kennedy decided not to support them with air strikes, leaving all 2,000 or so to be either killed or captured. It was the worst combination of rashness and hesitancy, and a major foreign policy setback for the young president.

About two and a half months later, in June, Khrushchev and Kennedy met in Vienna. Kennedy later told his advisors that the meeting was “the roughest thing in my life.” He believed that Khrushchev saw him as weak and immature. Two months later, the Berlin Wall went up, and Kennedy made no military moves to stop its erection. Clearly Khrushchev had gained the impression that Kennedy was irresolute and could be pushed around.

At the same time, Fidel Castro, who had been badly shaken by the Bay of Pigs invasion, moved

Cuba firmly into the Communist camp, and began to play Khrushchev and Mao Zedong off against each other. (The Soviet and Chinese governments were competing for leadership of the worldwide communist movement.) In order to solidify the Soviet Union’s relationship with Castro, Khrushchev felt it was necessary to commit Russian assets to Cuba to help Castro prevent an American invasion, which Castro was sure was in the cards.

Finally, the so-called “missile gap” — the claim that the Soviets had more and better missiles than the United States — which Kennedy used to defeat Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election was untrue. There was no missile gap. In fact, although the Soviets had an ample supply of short-range and medium-range missiles, the United States had overwhelming superiority in long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. And Khrushchev knew that. Krushchev feared that nuclear war was an increasing possibility because hot spots such as Laos, Vietnam, Berlin, and Cuba were becoming even hotter, and he feared the Soviet Union would lose. He thought that he could overcome the United States’s strategic superiority in long-range ICBMs by placing short-range and medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads under Soviet control in Cuba, about 90 miles south of Florida. Somehow, Khrushchev thought he could sneak nuclear weapons into Cuba without providing a dire reaction from the United States.

Thus, the table was set for Khrushchev to secure the approval from the Soviet Praesidium to send 43,000 Soviet troops, missiles, and nuclear warheads to Cuba in an operation called Anadyr. The Praesidium also O.K.’d sending to Cuba four missile regiments with 40 missile launchers – 24 launchers for R-12 medium-range missiles and 16 launchers of R-14 intermediate-range missiles, along with 60 missiles. The plan also called for 60 nuclear warheads.

Extraordinary measures were taken to hide the movement of these assets to Cuba, beginning in April 1962. Troops that were transported to Cuba were required to stay below decks for most of the voyage to avoid U.S. surveillance. The Soviets were highly successful in moving troops and missiles to Cuba without the U.S. military’s knowledge.

It was only at the end of August that the United States had the first inkling of what the Soviets were up to. On August 31, the White House was told that a U-2 plane flying over Cuba had discovered six launch pads for the same sort of surface-to-air missiles that had shot down the American U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960. Still, even after learning that 38 Soviet vessels came to Cuba in August and September, the United States grossly underestimated what was afoot.

Even worse, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military intelligence were under the impression that the Soviets were only bringing defensive surface-to-air missiles into Cuba. In order to placate Khrushchev, who was using threatening language about both Berlin and Cuba, the United States suspended U-2 flights over Cuba in September. Thus, President Kennedy and his team were caught flatfooted when, with the resumption of U-2 flights over Cuba, they learned in mid-October that the Soviets had deployed medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads at multiple sites in Cuba.

It would be too tedious to recount in detail the many options President Kennedy and his advisors considered and the negotiations that went on between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the famous thirteen days from October 16 through October 29. Some advisers — including all the Joint Chiefs of Staff — argued for an air strike to destroy the missiles, followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba; others favored stern warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Initially, Kennedy leaned toward the air strike option. Later, on October 22, Kennedy decided upon a middle course, ordering a naval quarantine of Cuba. The same day, Kennedy sent a letter to Khrushchev declaring that the United States would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed, and return all offensive weapons to the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy also went on national television to describe developments in Cuba, the quarantine, and the potential global consequences if the crisis continued to escalate.  Memorably, he spoke the following words that I listened to while at Williams College:  “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  

During these days when nuclear war seemed plausible if not likely, there were two incidents that came close to provoking it. On October 27, a U-2 spy plane, tasked with collecting air samples over the North Pole, got lost and strayed over the Soviet Union. This occurred when the U.S. Strategic Air Command was at DEFCON 2. That meant that there were B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons on board in the air at all times. The Soviet Union knew that the United States was at DEFCON 2. Two Soviet MiG 17p fighters were sent in chase of the U-2 but not could not reach the high altitude at which the U-2 flies. Fortunately, the U-2 pilot was able to find his way back to an airbase in Alaska without provoking an air battle or nuclear missiles being launched by the Soviet Union.

The second incident was even more perilous. Khrushchev had sent four Soviet diesel-powered submarines with nuclear torpedoes towards Cuba. On October 27, one of these submarines, known as B-59, was forced to the surface by a U.S. anti-submarine task force that had been tracking and dogging the submarine for two days. At wits end, and without being able to communicate with Moscow, the Soviet captain of B-59 actually gave the command to arm the nuclear torpedo. However, his order was not carried out by the team in the torpedo compartment, and it was later countered by the commander of the Soviet nuclear sub task force, Vasilii Arkhipov. If this nuclear torpedo had been detonated, the explosion would have created a huge wave 50 to 100 feet high, destroying (or capsizing) not only the Soviet submarine but also the U.S. ships in the anti-submarine warfare unit. It was a close-run thing. Global nuclear war could have easily broken out if the nuclear torpedo had been detonated. (The thought led one later analyst to say that Arkhipov “saved the world.”

At times in Plokhy’s riveting book the reader sees more ways for nuclear war to have started than it for to have been avoided. Khrushchev’s recklessly aggressive behavior was countered by Kennedy and his team of advisors who were willing to call his bluff. In essence, it was only the threat of mutual destruction that caused both leaders to take a more moderate course:  for Khrushchev, it meant not allowing Soviet vessels to try to force their way through the U.S. naval blockade (or quarantine) and his withdrawal of all the Soviet missiles, nuclear weapons, and troops from Cuba; for Kennedy, it meant agreeing not to invade Cuba and pulling out all the nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

Sixty years later, we are dealing with an ugly war between Russia and Ukraine that could lead to something much more widespread. Putin’s announcement that Russian nuclear forces are on high alert invokes the huge stakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis. May Putin and the West learn the lessons of 1962 and also choose the moderate road.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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