The Missiles of October: Group Writing Project

 

In October 1962, I was 10 years old, beginning sixth grade at P.S. 79. Like my classmates, I was surprised to hear that we might not have school the following week, because by then, there might not be a school. Or much else left standing. There have been plenty of books and documentaries and a handful of fictional TV shows and films devoted to this crucial moment in history. This post is a review of what I think were the best of the pack.

One of history’s coincidences was the publication earlier in 1962 of Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” about great powers stumbling into a disastrous world war no one really wanted. John F. Kennedy liked the Tuchman book and recommended it to his national security chiefs. They read it a few months before the Cuban missile crisis, or as the Russians have always called it, the Caribbean crisis. That book’s title inspired the best (IMHO) of the screen treatments, 1974’s three-hour ABC television film, “The Missiles of October.” It’s almost forgotten today and hard to find online. Why do I think it was the best? We’ll get to that.

What do we use as a trusted historical source to judge the truth of movie or TV adaptations? Usually, a good book. Serhii Plokhy’s “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” published just this year, is my current go-to book about this subject. Professor Plokhy is Ukrainian, so he had access to copies of KGB files that Moscow will no longer allow to be seen.

One of the few remaining (literal) bombshell surprises from Soviet archives was already revealed 30 years ago: Some nuclear missiles were not only assembled but ready to fire when JFK told the world that offensive weapons were in Cuba. The possibility of World War III was every bit as real as popular memory made it out to be.

I’d never realized how fast this all happened. Nikita Khrushchev made the decision to place atomic missiles in Cuba in late spring and wanted them ready by the end of the year. Hastily sent military survey teams were completely unfamiliar with how hot and humid the summer would be. They didn’t realize that palm trees would make poor cover from aerial surveillance. They even missed important basic technical details, like the simple fact that Cuba’s electrical supplies were on the U.S. standard, 120 volts at 60 Hz, not the European/USSR standard of 240 volts, 50 Hz. Follow-up teams had to reject their proposed locations for missile bases and come up with more practical ones.

The missiles themselves were about 45 feet long; driving them inland in huge trucks was all but impossible with Cuba’s narrow, winding dirt roads. Soviet engineering battalions, beset with dysentery, spent the summer frantically paving and bridging.

Soviet naval crews hadn’t deployed in large numbers to tropical climates before, and the ships transporting the missiles and warheads became ovenlike.

It was always part of missile crisis lore that the Kennedy brothers stood against war while their military advisers plotted to drag them into it. That isn’t really so. JFK and Bobby vacillated all month between fear and bellicosity. Robert Kennedy’s own account, “Thirteen Days,” long thought to be definitive, is heavily shaded to minimize the fact that the brothers first fumbled through all the options. Yes, many of the conversations in RFK’s book were recorded. But Plokhy, who unlike many Americans isn’t blinded by Kennedy worship, dryly points out that Kennedy’s White House recordings, unlike Nixon’s, were selective. They didn’t erase tapes; they just didn’t run the recorder if the talk was likely to be troublesome later. Unsurprisingly, the finished product makes the administration look like saints and heroes.

1962’s October Surprise wasn’t a surprise to everyone. Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating of New York had been sounding the alarm all year. I hadn’t realized to what degree Keating, and his early warnings about Cuban missiles, was woven into JFK’s White House political calculations. At one point, Kennedy, exasperated, growls that at this rate, Ken Keating will be elected president in ’64.

The Plokhy book demonstrates how erratic diplomatic communications were, for both bureaucratic and technical reasons. There was no “hot line” yet. The USSR had limited radio, telephone, and telegraph links with the outside world. Furthermore, the two capitals were eight time zones apart, introducing more delay factors. This hadn’t mattered much, until avoiding war became a minute-to-minute job that could totally fail overnight.

This fog of uncertainty also applied to military communications. Plokhy notes that it was nearly a tragedy that the nuclear age preceded the information age by 30-plus years. Orders were missed, garbled, and misunderstood. With what was now a worldwide battlefront on land, sea, and air, mechanical breakdowns and normal, everyday errors, accidents, and confusion were inevitable, more so as the crisis stretched on.

Khrushchev was, of course, a dictator, but not as absolute as we thought. In a sense that I’d never realized, he was in a trickier position than Kennedy vis-à-vis his internal politics. Except for Vice President Lyndon Johnson, almost everyone around JFK was his appointee, dismissable at any time. Khrushchev, on the other hand, was merely considered first among equals in the council of ministers. He had less maneuvering room than I thought. Nor was this just in theory; they had the power to remove him, and two years later, they did. We tend to regard the formalities of Communist-era governments as being mere rubber stamping, but the post-Stalin Communist big shots themselves didn’t see it that way.

And there was a third side, a third set of protagonists to the Cuban missile crisis: the Cubans. They didn’t see themselves as subservient to the Soviets; far from it. They took Marxist anti-imperialist rhetoric seriously and expected no less from their friends in the Kremlin. But Khrushchev had the power of final decision making, not Fidel Castro, and Castro knew it. The Plokhy book reinforces what was already guessed at: Castro was a reckless World War III enthusiast who was bitterly disappointed when the USSR declined to stage a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the U.S.

Castro had a testy relationship with the “old” official Communist Party of Cuba, which rode along with Castro’s revolution but couldn’t boss him around. Quite the opposite. One of the things that had changed by 1962 was the Soviet Union delicately switching its affiliation from the old underground Reds it had known for decades to Fidel’s hard-fighting but still (relatively) politically ignorant faction of rebels.

Plokhy gives us an honest reading of the outcome: Kennedy won, Khrushchev lost. That’s the way it was seen at the time as well. But he does it in power terms, not moral terms. The handful of Jupiter missiles that the U.S. had installed in Turkey were quietly removed as JFK’s secret part of the deal. (Today, you can listen to JFK briefing former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower about the details. When asked about the rockets in Turkey, Kennedy hesitates and then lies.) Khrushchev did walk away with something else, a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.

Now we get to the screen adaptations. By far the best known is a feature film starring Kevin Costner, “Thirteen Days” (2000), taken more or less directly from RFK’s book. I’ll tell you upfront: I don’t like it; it’s dishonest. Its biggest deviation from Bobby’s self-serving tale was making Kenny O’Donnell a central character, and as every living JFK staffer declared, O’Donnell had nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis. In real life he was a lackey and political hack, not someone in a position to pick up a phone and tell the armed forces what to do. The movie depicts the U.S. military, not the USSR, as if it was the “real enemy.” Some decent acting and a couple of scenes aside, the only virtues of “Thirteen Days” are its production values: the cars, the offices, the skinny neckties, the TVs, and the telephones are meticulously real. It’s the script that’s phony.

That’s why a mere TV movie from December 1974 rates higher with me. It, too, uses RFK’s memoir as a starting point, but it leaves out some dubious assertions and adds some crucial facts, making it a more balanced and truthful portrait that’s worthy of your viewing time. On a TV budget, it doesn’t and couldn’t have a feature film’s polished look, and to the credit of the producers, it sensibly didn’t try. It’s classic television drama, a late example of what’s now thought of as the Golden Age of live TV in the ’50s. Twenty-plus years before “The West Wing,” “The Missiles of October” gave us an unusually realistic look at White House life. This is no noble Camelot we see here but hard-nosed political operatives dealing with power and its limitations.

A small personal sidenote: In the fall of 1964 I met Sen. Kenneth Keating in Queens, New York, where I was one of the kids volunteering at local Republican headquarters. Before he showed up that day, one of the GOP grown-ups barked at us, “Hide those Goldwater buttons.” This seemed comically cowardly to us at the time, but we complied. Years later, I realized that it wasn’t because they didn’t want Keating to see them, but because they didn’t want press photographers to see them, or random Democrats to be put off potential ticket splitting.

Keating autographed something and smiled wanly when I asked him if he’d really been a teacher of Latin when he was 19. Even a 12-year-old kid could see he was in the last days of a failing campaign to save his Senate seat — from, as it turned out, Bobby Kennedy. So the unheeded prophet, who correctly gave early warning of Soviet missiles in Cuba, lost out to one of the loudest skeptics and longest holdouts. But it was Robert Kennedy who would get to write the history.

This post is part of the Group Writing project, administered by Clifford A. Brown, a member-created feature of Ricochet.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    My parents never talk about it, and the first president I remember was LBJ. The Jupiter missiles’ fate came out when I was in high school, and the old joke was that my home town was likely on the Soviet list of targets because of the ammunition plant and the two interstates that crossed there.

    • #1
  2. WiesbadenJake Coolidge
    WiesbadenJake
    @WiesbadenJake

    I was in 1st grade at the time; my father was an Air Force NCO who worked in communications–he was sent TDY from his base in California to Florida for several months. Before he left, he brought home several cases of C-rations, telling us if there was nuclear war we wouldn’t be able to eat the produce because of radioactive fallout. While he was gone my brother and me, and the neighborhood kids, played army and ate most of the C-rations. It was not unusual for my dad to be gone for months at a time, though usually it was overseas, so I was not surprised or troubled by his being gone. He told me years later that his unit was part of the contingency plans for the invasion of Cuba–that he would have been flown in as soon as the Havana airport was made secure. Some say those were paranoid times; I do not share those feelings. If you want peace you must prepare for war.

    • #2
  3. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    When I was a little bitty kid, the movie We were made to watch was The Day After.

    Scared the bejesus outta Me. 

    • #3
  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

     

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Missiles of October was great TV. It’s a shame it’s forgotten.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The actual days of the “crisis” were to me an anti-climax, which is something I learned just recently.  I have some vivid memories of the time (I was a freshman in high school) but my timeline was a little fuzzy. Several weeks ago I was able to reconcile my memory with the actual event by reading some old newspapers at newspapers.com and being reminded that the missiles in Cuba were a topic of discussion on front pages several weeks before the crisis has traditionally been said to have taken place.  

    I’m putting Plokhy’s book in my audible queue now.  

    I’ve read (listened to) two of Plokhy’s other books, Chernobyl: The History of a Catastrophe, and Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: American Airmen Behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance and already had one other in my queue. They were very good and I look forward to anything else written by him. 

    (In Russian Serhii would be Sergei, but it seems that Ukrainian takes every hard “g” and turns it into an aspirated “h” sound.  That’s key to helping me recognize the relationship between a lot of Russian-Ukrainian cognates.  They even do it with the “g” in the word for English. Maybe it’s also related to the fact that Russian does it in reverse and takes a word like “Hitler” and turns it into “Gitler,” or a word like “horizon” and turns it into “gorizont.” Some Ukrainians in America go by Sergei, and probably did since youth, but I kind of like that Serhii goes with the Ukrainian version of his name.) 

     

    • #6
  7. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Thanks Gary. I turned 9 in October 1962, but I have no personal memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall reading somewhere (not sure where) that Khrushchev and the other Soviet leaders were shocked by how zealously and ardently Castro and his inner circle wanted the USSR to attack the US with the nuclear missiles staged in Cuba.

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Great post, Gary! I so appreciate all the clarity and corrections you’ve given us. Who knew! Thanks.

    • #8
  9. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    While I was too young to remember this incident, my father played a role.  He was an assistant attorney general working for Bobby Kennedy.  One of his early assignments was to write a brief on what options the US had under international law should the Soviets put missiles in Cuba.  The answer was, as one would imagine, what we did — get the support of the OAS and blockade Cuba.  Yes, this story is probably a bit biased since my father was there and he was telling the story.

    The other details you have provided here Gary are great, thank you again for a great post.

    • #9
  10. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    One of the scariest parts of the crisis involved a Soviet submarine that had been located by American vessels and was being subjected to ‘practice’ depth charges in an attempt to get it to surface. Unknown to the Americans, the sub carried a nuclear torpedo.  Normally, the use of this torpedo would require approval of the captain and the political officer, but on this voyage there was also a flotilla staff officer, who was added to the launch approval requirement.

    The temperature in the sub was well over 100F, and the stress level was very high; some believed that war had begun.  According to at least some witnesses, the captain was inclined to launch the nuclear torpedo and the political officer agreed, but the staff officer demurred.

    Finally the sub surfaced and a US photographic plane overflew it…and dropped a photoflash bomb.

    US destroyer captain blinked out ‘sorry’, which may have been the most important apology ever made.

    • #10
  11. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    My memories of the Cuban missle crisis consisted of a school evacuation when we were sent home early and a scare attempt. My father was on an air force base for a meeting when the base was locked down and got home very late.

    Moral of the story: don’t show up at your first meeting with your chief adversary stoned out of your mind as JFK did in Vienna.

    I remember watching Sen. Keating the night of or morning after his defeat on television. He was very tired and it was sad. So much better than that phony Bobby Kennedy.

    • #11
  12. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    The British had a GRU asset inside the Soviet trade ministry who provided early warning to Mi6 and by extension to the CIA about the misses. It cost the GRU agent his life. 

    • #12
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Hang On (View Comment):

    The British had a GRU asset inside the Soviet trade ministry who provided early warning to Mi6 and by extension to the CIA about the misses. It cost the GRU agent his life.

    The Courier is a good fictionalized telling of the true story, not overly embellishing the real events.

    • #13
  14. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    I was in 6th grade and we had a class trip planned from our school in suburban CT to the United Nations that week.  The day before we were to go, our teacher told us, “some of your parents have called to say they are worried about us going on this trip.  I told them if something bad happened it wouldn’t matter where we were, so we’re going“.  And we did.  We couldn’t get into the Security Council because of the crisis.  Can’t imagine a teacher doing that today.

    • #14
  15. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    I was eight years old at the time and don’t recall any specifics of the news, but I do remember the grownups being nervous and upset.  Rightly so, since our school was about six miles from a SAC bomber base and the house not much further.  They didn’t even bother with the ‘duck and cover’ drills.  (A year’s age makes a difference, as I recall quite clearly some scenes from Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.)

    • #15
  16. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I was in my early twenties at the time of the crisis, and the radio at work was constantly tuned to the hourly reports on progress of the crisis negotiations. At the time, it seemed very much like a deadly game of “chicken;” who was going to blink first? Fortunately, Khrushchev ordered the ships carrying the missiles (then approaching Cuba) to turn around. Although the news reports lionized Kennedy for his steadfastness, we later learned about the deal to remove our missiles from Turkey.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    I was in 6th grade and we had a class trip planned from our school in suburban CT to the United Nations that week. The day before we were to go, our teacher told us, “some of your parents have called to say they are worried about us going on this trip. I told them if something bad happened it wouldn’t matter where we were, so we’re going“. And we did. We couldn’t get into the Security Council because of the crisis. Can’t imagine a teacher doing that today.

    That was my thought the previous month when we wondered if we should make the trip to North Dakota for a funeral, at a time when there was a possibility of nuclear war.  My thought was that whether it was northeastern Nebraska, South Dakota, or North Dakota, it didn’t much matter where we were.  Maybe my parents thought the same, because we went. To me, that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and what happened the following month was just denouement. 

    • #17
  18. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    I was 14 at the time, and I remember vividly with slight chagrin my biggest fear was that I would perish in a nuclear blast before having experienced . . . you know. . .  what randy 14-year old boys are thinking about . . .

    Ironically I learned many years later that my then soon-to-be brother-in-law, a member of the Air National Guard while attending night college, had been ordered to a nearby air base to stand by for possible deployment to Florida. Think he might have had bigger concerns on his mind than I.

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Missiles of October was great TV. It’s a shame it’s forgotten.

    The one online source that I found appears legit, but it’s Russian, and that makes it a wee bit too untrustworthy to link. I’ve got a DVD. There may be a good, unambiguously safe source out there somewhere. 

    This was a very unusual way to present a show in 1974, giving up the network’s entire evening to a three hour presentation. Remember that there was no cable at the time, no HBO or Showtime–not quite yet. Prestige TV, when it happened at all, happened on one of the three major networks. And ABC tended to need more prestige, because their weekly lineup didn’t exactly exude it. 

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    The actual days of the “crisis” were to me an anti-climax, which is something I learned just recently. I have some vivid memories of the time (I was a freshman in high school) but my timeline was a little fuzzy. Several weeks ago I was able to reconcile my memory with the actual event by reading some old newspapers at newspapers.com and being reminded that the missiles in Cuba were a topic of discussion on front pages several weeks before the crisis has traditionally been said to have taken place.

    I’m putting Plokhy’s book in my audible queue now.

    I’ve read (listened to) two of Plokhy’s other books, Chernobyl: The History of a Catastrophe, and Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: American Airmen Behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance and already had one other in my queue. They were very good and I look forward to anything else written by him.

    (In Russian Serhii would be Sergei, but it seems that Ukrainian takes every hard “g” and turns it into an aspirated “h” sound. That’s key to helping me recognize the relationship between a lot of Russian-Ukrainian cognates. They even do it with the “g” in the word for English. Maybe it’s also related to the fact that Russian does it in reverse and takes a word like “Hitler” and turns it into “Gitler,” or a word like “horizon” and turns it into “gorizont.” Some Ukrainians in America go by Sergei, and probably did since youth, but I kind of like that Serhii goes with the Ukrainian version of his name.)

    I always found it funny that although Russians certainly pronounce a “G” and a “V” sound, somehow everywhere in the USSR my name was pronounced as “Herry Mock Way”. 

    • #20
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    While I was too young to remember this incident, my father played a role. He was an assistant attorney general working for Bobby Kennedy. One of his early assignments was to write a brief on what options the US had under international law should the Soviets put missiles in Cuba. The answer was, as one would imagine, what we did — get the support of the OAS and blockade Cuba. Yes, this story is probably a bit biased since my father was there and he was telling the story.

    The other details you have provided here Gary are great, thank you again for a great post.

    As you know from previous posts, I honor your father’s service to this country, and RFK’s as well. In the end, the Kennedy brothers made the best they could out of the situation, and conservatives like us should recall that there were indeed gutsy, patriotic liberals (and even today, there are people like Bari Weiss, Mickey Kaus, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi). 

    My objection to some of the things Bobby wrote in Thirteen Days is that they were heavily influenced by what became a national tendency to lionize Jack Kennedy after his death and deny any flaws. As JFK’s brother, RFK could not be objective and, in truth, nobody would really expect him to be. 

    And yes, I’m not 100% objective either. Clearly I have a soft spot for Keating, mostly because he is forgotten and doesn’t get any retrospective credit.  

    Of course, Sirhan should never get out of jail. 

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    I always found it funny that although Russians certainly pronounce a “G” and a “V” sound, somehow everywhere in the USSR my name was pronounced as “Herry Mock Way”. 

    Interesting.  Harry Potter becomes Garri Potter, so of course, why wouldn’t they pronounce Gary as Herry? 

    And the “V”  seems to become very, very soft when followed by ы, sometimes hard to distinguish from our “w.”  That has sometimes caused me to be confused.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz” is based on this subject, with a broad sweep of what it was like as the Communists rooted out dissent in Cuba. (Hint: it’s roughly what Uncle Owen and Aunt Boru experienced during the Empire’s search of Tatooine) It’s not Hitch’s best, but it has its moments. 

    • #23
  24. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I was a graduate student, didn’t understand much and can’t remember what I thought, but loved Kennedy.  After Kennedy and Khrushchev I thought we should have eliminated Castro.  I still do.

     

    • #24
  25. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    The only historic event I remember from 1962 was John Glenn and Friendship 7.

     

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Odd fact: Robert Kennedy is the highest ranking government official to ever witness an atomic test–July 17, 1962.

    • #26
  27. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    The only historic event I remember from 1962 was John Glenn and Friendship 7.

     

    That’s the day after I was born.  My parents told me I would have been named “John Glenn [lastname]” except that my older brother already had Glen as a middle name 

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    In 1962, I went with the Cub Scouts to see “How the West Was Won” in three-screen Cinerama, one of the last films released in that spectacular format. The film was intended to do for the West what MGM’s earlier “Gone With the Wind” did for the South, be a permanent historical record for the general public, and hopefully a popular one. For ’62, HTWWW was a marker of its time, a (mildly) liberal retelling of settlement in Indian territory. Today, it would be considered so white-centered and reactionary that it would never be green-lit. 

    ’62 was an in-between moment, closer in spirit and look to the Fifties than to the later Sixties. Women still wore hats and gloves and skirts; men had just stopped wearing hats; segregation was outlawed but real integration hadn’t begun. The heroin bust of “The French Connection” happened that year; the enormous crime wave hadn’t started yet. 

    • #28
  29. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In 1962, I went with the Cub Scouts to see “How the West Was Won” in three-screen Cinerama, one of the last films released in that spectacular format. The film was intended to do for the West what MGM’s earlier “Gone With the Wind” did for the South, be a permanent historical record for the general public, and hopefully a popular one. For ’62, HTWWW was a marker of its time, a (mildly) liberal retelling of settlement in Indian territory. Today, it would be considered so white-centered and reactionary that it would never be green-lit.

    ’62 was an in-between moment, closer in spirit and look to the Fifties than to the later Sixties. Women still wore hats and gloves and skirts; men had just stopped wearing hats; segregation was outlawed but real integration hadn’t begun. The heroin bust of “The French Connection” happened that year; the enormous crime wave hadn’t started yet.

    Yes, the 60s became The Sixties on November 22, 1963.  Like the 20th century began in 1914 and ended in 1991. 

    • #29
  30. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    I was in 8th grade, my school was on base at Camp LeJeune.  I don’t remember anything particular, but spoke to my little brother who has dad’s service records.  Dad deployed to the USS Boxer, which was on blockade duty.  He flew two different types of helicopters and maybe an OE-1 or 2 from her deck, making numerous trips.

    And I remember nothing of any of this, except three years later a really gorgeous Cuban girl came to my high school.  She got her pick of the guys. That I remember.

    • #30