Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

 

This month marks the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war. Several years ago, I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here. Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.

Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted ‘Fire!’ that was quite another matter.

Kirillov:

There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.

At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.

I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.

Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.

It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.

Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:

Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.

(Previously posted at Chicago Boyz.)

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There are 10 comments.

  1. Bob Thompson Member

    David Foster: Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible.

    I can confirm the truth of this. I was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. assigned to a Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) Artillery Group and, on alert, we were deployed on several occasions and loaded aboard transport aircraft ready to go to Cuba whenever the 82nd Airborne secured a landing facility there.

    • #1
    • October 20, 2019, at 8:48 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. Arthur Beare Member

    A lot has been written about the Cuban missile crisis from the American side. I have always suspected that Khrushchev’s personal experience of the realities of total war was a very important (but frequently overlooked) factor in its peaceful resolution. 

    Personal experience is far, far different than a merely intellectual understanding. 

    I worry that none of the current world leaders has such a perspective.

    • #2
    • October 20, 2019, at 12:22 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. The Reticulator Member

    I got the Kindle version of volume 1. Thx for the recommendation.

    It’s a messed up scan job, as a reviewer complained, but I’ve read worse.

    • #3
    • October 20, 2019, at 2:43 PM PST
    • Like
  4. cirby Member

    During the near-miss of the Able Archer 83 incident, someone in the chain decided that the US really was going to war, and parts of our USAF base (George AFB) got the message that we’d be bugging out Right Now. Not everyone, mind you, just some of us.

    Everyone in my unit was called in, and we started packing like crazy. During the chaos, I was asked – nicely – if I could stay behind until the last F-4 launched. They needed an NCO to stick around at the launch shack, just in case.

    They asked me because I had a motorcycle that would do a solid 130 mph, and once the last plane took off, everyone was to head out along a dirt road to the north edge of the base, hit the highway, and “get on the other side of that mountain right there, really fast. Or else.”

    Luckily, someone asked the right questions before it went too far.

    • #4
    • October 20, 2019, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Bob Thompson Member

    cirby (View Comment):

    During the near-miss of the Able Archer 83 incident, someone in the chain decided that the US really was going to war, and parts of our USAF base (George AFB) got the message that we’d be bugging out Right Now. Not everyone, mind you, just some of us.

    Everyone in my unit was called in, and we started packing like crazy. During the chaos, I was asked – nicely – if I could stay behind until the last F-4 launched. They needed an NCO to stick around at the launch shack, just in case.

    They asked me because I had a motorcycle that would do a solid 130 mph, and once the last plane took off, everyone was to head out along a dirt road to the north edge of the base, hit the highway, and “get on the other side of that mountain right there, really fast. Or else.”

    Luckily, someone asked the right questions before it went too far.

    My impression was that Ronald Reagan thought enough about surviving/prevailing in a nuclear conflict that we prepared to do just that.

    • #5
    • October 20, 2019, at 4:10 PM PST
    • Like
  6. cirby Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    cirby (View Comment):

    During the near-miss of the Able Archer 83 incident, someone in the chain decided that the US really was going to war, and parts of our USAF base (George AFB) got the message that we’d be bugging out Right Now. Not everyone, mind you, just some of us.

    Everyone in my unit was called in, and we started packing like crazy. During the chaos, I was asked – nicely – if I could stay behind until the last F-4 launched. They needed an NCO to stick around at the launch shack, just in case.

    They asked me because I had a motorcycle that would do a solid 130 mph, and once the last plane took off, everyone was to head out along a dirt road to the north edge of the base, hit the highway, and “get on the other side of that mountain right there, really fast. Or else.”

    Luckily, someone asked the right questions before it went too far.

    My impression was that Ronald Reagan thought enough about surviving/prevailing in a nuclear conflict that we prepared to do just that.

    Enough horror stories about Soviet equipment have emerged since then to make me wonder about a lot of things.

    For one, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of the Soviet arsenal would have gone anywhere but their intended targets.There would have been a lot of radioactive polar bears and devastated middle-of-nowheres.

    For another, I’m astounded by the number of times we came so very, very close to kicking off the Big One, but were stopped by people using common sense at the last minute.

    I’m just glad Stalin died before the Soviet nuclear arsenal got big enough for a workable first strike.

    • #6
    • October 20, 2019, at 6:58 PM PST
    • 1 like
  7. I Walton Member

    Recommend Yale’s Kagan on the Cuban missile crisis a chapter in “On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace” A completely different interpretation and understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis than we had at the time. An important book.

    • #7
    • October 21, 2019, at 5:40 AM PST
    • Like
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster Post author

    The Cuban Missile Crisis was ended by a deal that included the US removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, which aspect of the deal was secret.

    What would have happened if today’s political environment of prolific leaking and extreme hostility to the President had existed? Kennedy would have known that any such deal would have been leaked, and he would have been denounced as “sort on the Russians”, probably as an actual traitor.

    So he wouldn’t have made the deal….

    • #8
    • October 21, 2019, at 6:06 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Bob Thompson Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    The Cuban Missile Crisis was ended by a deal that included the US removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, which aspect of the deal was secret.

    What would have happened if today’s political environment of prolific leaking and extreme hostility to the President had existed? Kennedy would have known that any such deal would have been leaked, and he would have been denounced as “sort on the Russians”, probably as an actual traitor.

    So he wouldn’t have made the deal….

    It’s really scary to think how a confrontation such as this would go with the intelligence agency performance we see today. And they, the leakers, would definitely be the traitors

    • #9
    • October 21, 2019, at 7:43 PM PST
    • Like
  10. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I got the Kindle version of volume 1. Thx for the recommendation.

    It’s a messed up scan job, as a reviewer complained, but I’ve read worse.

    Almost done with volume 1, and I have volume 2 lined up. It’s a real page turner, and it’s only partly because I’m using a large font on my tablet so I can read it without my eyeglasses, which means turning the pages rapidly. 

    • #10
    • October 23, 2019, at 3:39 PM PST
    • Like