The 1962 Cuban missile crisis

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

By Philip Nash, University of North Carolina Press, 1997

Reviewed by Alison Hill

The Cuban missile crisis that gripped the world sixty years ago in October 1962 is usually cited as the nearest the United States and the USSR ever came to nuclear war.

According to US propaganda what forced the Soviet climb-down was superior US military might and the negotiating skills of president John F Kennedy. This book sheds a bit more light on the period and debunks some of the myths.

It also reveals that the Peter Sellers film Dr Strangelove, released in 1964, wasn’t completely fiction. With the declassification of secret cold war documents, we are now able to read exchanges like these, about the siting of medium-range ballistic missiles:

President John Kennedy: “Why does he put these there [in Cuba] though?… It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of medium-range missiles in Turkey. Now that’d be goddam dangerous, I would think”.

National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy: “Well, we did Mr President”.

In October 1957 the Soviet Union delivered a huge blow to the West by launching the first successful satellite. Looking back, all Sputnik seemed able to do was to orbit the earth bleeping, but that was enough to convince the US capitalist political and military elite that the USSR was capable of aiming missiles at any part of the planet.

Sputnik was an immense technical achievement. However, it was still early days for rocket and missile technology, and the USSR was a long way from being able to target missiles accurately. Nevertheless the fear in capitalist circles of the USSR as an alternative economic system beyond their control was such that Western propagandists went overboard. Now the Evil Empire could start a world war with rockets…

Sputnik caused president Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity to plummet, and he came under increasing pressure from his base in the US ruling class to do more about national defence.

The USA’s European capitalist allies also pushed to join in its nuclear deterrent. However, when it came to protecting US interests, Eisenhower was clear. Shortly after the launch of Sputnik he stated that “such matters as deployment… were completely secondary to the determination by the United States to fire a 1,500-mile missile and hit something”. In the face of advances in the USSR, it was politically necessary for the US to have a credible nuclear attack capacity.

Many of the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance wanted a share too. Heading the queue was UK prime minister Harold Macmillan, who had already agreed to take Thor missiles. The prestige of NATO generally and the US in particular meant it was necessary to go further and offer intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to other European countries.

This offer did not meet with unqualified enthusiasm. There were wrangles over who would actually control the missiles, and an understandable fear that US missile deployments would result in each European launch-site becoming a target.

Quite apart from US domestic pressures, rivalries between the different European countries and strains in their transatlantic relationships complicated the negotiations.

The book explains how some of these were almost farcical. General Lauris Norstad of the United States Air Force (USAF) spent two years trawling round Europe trying to get bases for their missiles.

Despite the early enthusiasm of Turkey, there were doubts about its suitability as a missile site. Was it too provocative in a country bordering the Soviet Union? Others produced more ludicrous objections about ‘the Turkish temperament’ and the possibilities of an ‘irresponsible’ missile launch. Macmillan let his bigotry hang out when he objected to multinational crews for the missiles with: “You don’t expect our chaps to share their grog with the Turks, do you?”

After these adventures in high diplomacy the US finally obtained an agreement. They already had 60 Thor missiles in Britain, to which would be added the Jupiters in Italy and Turkey. The missile launch sites were duly built, at which point the comic nature of the ‘nuclear deterrent’ was revealed. The missiles stood above ground, sometimes near public roads, and were therefore vulnerable to sabotage.

One Italian site upset a delegation from the US Congress and its Energy Commission. The thin-skinned missiles were within rifle range of houses and roads in an area where the Communist Party had received 23% of the vote in 1958. The delegation reported: “In periods of… incipient hostilities, the vulnerability of these missiles to such sabotage would appear especially acute”.

The UK’s Thor installations had similar vulnerabilities, exacerbated by simple human failings, like the British officer who kept both firing keys in his pocket. At another simulated launch, a US officer didn’t turn up with the second key, forcing the British officer to shove a screwdriver into the lock to complete the launch sequence.

Kennedy became US president in 1961, having been elected on a programme that included a more effective waging of the cold war. He immediately plunged into the fray with the attempt in 1961 to topple the new revolutionary government of Fidel Castro in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. This just gave the USSR a propaganda victory. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was able to capitalise on the US Jupiter bases in Turkey and equate Cuba with Turkey. By the spring of 1962, he had deployed both medium-range and intermediate-range SS-4 ballistic missiles on the island.

At the height of the crisis, there was real public fear that nuclear war was possible. Some USAF units were put on alert, and shady activities went on to ensure missiles would only be launched on direct orders from the president, irrespective of deals which had been done with NATO allies.

The possibility of resolving the situation with an air strike on Cuba was considered by the president and the joint chiefs of staff. They were prepared to allow a nuclear counter-strike by the USSR against Turkey without the US escalating the conflict further.

The fact that a localised nuclear clash involving the destruction of two countries was seriously considered, demonstrates the calculating nature of capitalism and its leaders. It also shows – in a ghastly way – that the existence of nuclear missiles in and of itself would not have caused a third world war. The globe definitely was and is a more dangerous place with nuclear weapons around. Ultimately however, the question of ‘war or peace?’ is a political matter, not a technological one.

In the face of worse options, private negotiations began for a tit-for-tat climb-down. Together with a naval blockade of Cuba, the US opted for a secret deal with Khrushchev under which the Jupiters would be removed from Italy and Turkey, and the SS-4s from Cuba. The details of the deal were known only to a handful. The US was prepared to sacrifice the Jupiters, but it didn’t want the rest of the world to see this as a climb-down.

Khrushchev on the other hand did fear an imminent US attack on Cuba, and was prepared to restabilise world relations with this deal, again provided the details stayed secret. The US agreed to remove the Jupiters, once the Soviet missiles had left Cuba.

Shortly after the missiles had been dismantled, a series of weapons treaties were struck between the US and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the tensions between the diametrically opposed economic systems were subsequently fought out in ‘secondary’ wars like Vietnam.

In spite of the subject matter this book is not the most gripping read, but it is worth a look for its insight into the depths of the cold war.

The original version of this article was published in Socialism Today No.34, December-January 1998/99.