On the Brink

The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis

edited by Ernest R. May, by Philip D. Zelikow
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 728 pp., $35.00

The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957-1963

by Philip Nash
University of North Carolina Press, 231 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The story of the Cuban missiles begins in April 1962, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to increase very substantially the limited military support hitherto provided by the USSR to the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. At his urging the Soviet Presidium duly assented to a military build-up on the island which, in its final form, was to include some 50,000 Soviet military personnel, organized in five nuclear missile regiments, four motorized regiments, two tank battalions, one MIG-21 fighter wing, forty-two IL-28 light bombers, two cruise missile regiments, twelve SA-2 anti- aircraft units with 144 launchers, and a squadron of eleven submarines, seven of them equipped with nuclear missiles.

President John F. Kennedy and US intelligence analysts were aware of the growing Soviet military presence in Cuba. But it was only after August 29, 1962, when a U-2 reconnaissance plane spotted the SA-2 missile sites, that Kennedy went public, on September 4, with a warning that whereas such land-to-air defensive missiles were acceptable, the installation of offensive missiles in Cuba would not be. On September 13, during a press conference, he repeated the warning: “If at any time…Cuba were to…become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.”

What Kennedy did not then know was that by September the Soviet build-up also included thirty-six SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and twenty-four SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), together with their nuclear warheads. (The first nuclear warheads arrived in Mariel aboard a Soviet freighter on October 4; by October 28, when the crisis ended, all the warheads for both sorts of missiles and all the SS-4 missiles themselves were actually in Cuba—only the SS-5s remained to be delivered.) Indeed, the Kennedy administration had been assured, by Khrushchev and by Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the US, that no such missiles were or would be placed in Cuba. When Dobrynin in early September asked how he might reply to a private question from Robert Kennedy about the Cuban situation, he was instructed by Moscow that “in talking to the Americans you should confirm that there are only defensive Soviet weapons in Cuba.”

Dobrynin reassured Robert Kennedy accordingly, with all the more conviction in that he, too, knew nothing about the ballistic missile emplacements. The US authorities accepted these reassurances, particularly since, as George Ball notes in his memoirs, the Soviet Union had never hitherto placed offensive missile bases outside its own territory, not even in the neighboring countries of the Warsaw Pact.

The significance of the MRBMs and IRBMs lay in their reach. They were designed not to hit incoming aircraft but to land on targets deep inside the US; the range of an SS-4 was about 1100 nautical miles, that of an SS-5 nearly twice that. A Soviet MRBM of that era, launched from Cuba, could hit Washington, D.C.; an …

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