Mikoyan and Castro, a difficult handshake. Photo courtesy of Sergo Mikoyan.
Mikoyan and Castro negotiating. Photo courtesy of Sergo Mikoyan.
Mikoyan and Castro. Photo courtesy of Sergo Mikoyan.
Washington, DC, October 10, 2012 – In November 1962, Cuba was preparing to become the first nuclear power in Latin America—at the time when the Kennedy administration thought that the Cuban
Missile Crisis was long resolved and the Soviet missiles were out. However, the Soviet and the Cuban leadership knew that the most dangerous weapons of the
crisis—tactical Lunas and FKRs—were still in Cuba. They were battlefield weapons, which would have been used against the U.S. landing forces if the EXCOMM
had decided on an invasion, not the quarantine. The Soviets intended for them to stay in Cuba secretly because they were not part of the Kennedy-Khrushchev
understandings, while the Cubans wanted to keep them to defend against another U.S. invasion. But Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan brought the
final resolution to the Cuban Missile crisis on November 22, 1962 in his four-hour conversation with the top Cuban leadership: the tactical nuclear weapons
would have to leave Cuba.
These revelations come from documents donated to the National Security Archive by our long-time partner, historian and personal secretary of his father,
the late Sergo A. Mikoyan. The documents are being published for the first time in English in the book by Sergo Mikoyan, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Missiles of November (Stanford University Press/Woodrow Wilson Center
Press, 2012). The documents published here today are the first part of the publication of the donated "Mikoyan archive" by the National Security Archive.
The new Soviet documents show that Khrushchev decided to place the missiles in Cuba because he was under the impression that a US invasion was just a
question of time, and he was not willing to lose his new Cuban ally, which constituted a forward base of socialism in the Western hemisphere. He felt
humiliated by the US missiles in Turkey virtually on the border of the USSR. He was also concerned by the enormous gap between the US and Soviet
deliverable nuclear firepower. Fidel Castro objected to a deployment that would have made him look like a Soviet puppet, but was persuaded that missiles in
Cuba would be in the interests of the entire socialist camp. The unprecedented secret deployment followed, but was not completed. The Kennedy speech on
October 22 brought the crisis into the open. Khrushchev's conciliatory letter of October 28 let the world breathe the sigh of relief. Yet, the crisis was
far from resolved.
With 42,000 combat personnel, 80 nuclear armed front cruise missiles (FKRs), 12 nuclear warheads for dual-use Luna launchers, and 6 nuclear bombs for
IL-28s still in Cuba and not covered in the exchange of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Soviet leader knew he had a problem. Castro, who was
not consulted or even informed of the deal, was angered by the Soviet betrayal and refused to allow any inspections of the Soviet withdrawal. The Soviets
had to take back the missiles, get the US to confirm its non-invasion pledge, and—most importantly—keep Cuba as an ally. Only in this way could the Soviets
resolve their own Cuban crisis. There was only one person who could negotiate this resolution—Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan.
Mikoyan arrived in Cuba in early November 1962. Already in the first conversations with the Cuban leaders, he felt their "acute dissatisfaction with our
policy." The Cubans felt humiliated and betrayed by their ally. While they were prepared to fight a nuclear war and "die beautifully," in the name of the
socialist camp, the Soviets were negotiating with the imperialists behind their backs. Mikoyan tried to explain to the Cubans why they were not apprised of
the Soviet decision to withdraw the weapons. He cited the lack of time and the fear of an American invasion amplified by the letter from Castro of October
27. Mikoyan assured the Cubans: "you know that not only in these letters but today also, we hold to the position that you will keep all the weapons and all
the military specialists with the exception of the "offensive" weapons and associated service personnel, which were promised to be withdrawn in
Khrushchev's letter." While Mikoyan tried to get Castro to accept some form of inspection in Cuba, the Cuban leader shocked him by not only flatly refusing
any inspections but saying emotionally that if the Soviets thought the Cuban position was unreasonable, then "we would think it more correct to consider
the Soviet side free of its obligations and we will resist by ourselves. Come what may. We have the right to defend our dignity ourselves." Did the Cubans
just say that they did not need such unreliable allies and that the Soviets could now simply go home? [Document 1, Telegram from Mikoyan to the CC CPSU. November 6, 1962]
No sooner had Mikoyan succeeded (barely) in bringing the Cubans back from the brink—by showing respect and empathy and promising that not a single
additional concession would be made—the Soviet leadership in Moscow decided that they had to agree to a new US demand—to withdraw the IL-28 nuclear capable
bombers. Khrushchev sent a long and rambling cable to Mikoyan giving him arguments to use with the Cubans regarding the new concession. He started by
asking for Mikoyan's opinion, "since by now you are almost like a Cuban." Khrushchev reaffirmed the Soviet position that the rest of the weapons would stay
in Cuba and be transferred to the Cubans gradually: "after the removal of the missiles and Il-28s, there would be no weapons that the Cubans could not
master on their own. […] [T]he weapons that were shipped to Cuba are already there and nobody is thinking of removing them. Later, when the situation
is normalized, most likely it would be expedient to transfer those weapons to the Cubans." He asked Mikoyan to give the Cubans assurances of lasting Soviet
friendship and support, and to try to persuade them that giving up the ILs would actually be in the Cuban interest because then the Soviet Union would
be able to extract from the Americans a formal non-invasion pledge. The Cubans had good grounds to be skeptical about that promise. [Document 2, Telegram from Khrushchev to Mikoyan. November 11, 1962]
Castro accepted the concession, but refused to see Mikoyan for two days and in the meantime ordered Cuban forces to shoot at low-flying U.S. reconnaissance
planes, bringing on another crisis within the crisis. In trying to get Castro to accept the withdrawal of the bombers, Mikoyan once again gave assurances
that no further concessions would be made and that the rest of the weapons would stay in Cuba. But in the course of daily conversations with the Cuban
leadership, he began to appreciate the danger tactical nuclear weapons would pose if they were left on the island, especially in Cuban hands. If the
Americans learned about their presence in Cuba, the situation could quickly spiral out of control. And in the future Cuba was not providing assurance that
it would be a cooperative ally as far as foreign policy was concerned.
The final straw came on November 20 when Castro sent instructions to Cuba's representative at the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, to use references to the
tactical nuclear weapons that Cuba had as leverage in negotiations, and also as a way to establish the fact that the weapons were in Cuban possession.
Mikoyan became extremely worried about that message and suggested to the Soviet Party Presidium that when he next spoke with Castro about the military
agreement between Moscow and Havana, he should inform the Cuban leader that all tactical nuclear weapons would be withdrawn from Cuba. In doing so, he was
well aware of the sensitivity of the issue for the Cubans and of their likely reaction to the prospect of the Soviets removing this last means of
resistance to US aggression. Mikoyan knew that he had to break this unpleasant news to his hosts, and he had to do it in a way that would ensure they
remained Soviet allies.
In the most crucial moment of his mission, Anastas Mikoyan and the Cuban leadership had a four-hour conversation on November 22, in which he informed them
of the latest decision to withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons. That was the final blow to the Cuban revolutionaries, after they had, in their eyes, been
made to suffer so much. Castro opened the conversation by saying that he was in a bad mood because Kennedy had stated in his speech that all nuclear
weapons had been removed from Cuba. Castro's understanding was that the tacticals were still on the island. Mikoyan confirmed this and assured him that
"the Soviet government has not given any promises regarding the removal of the tactical nuclear weapons. The Americans do not even have any information
that they are in Cuba." The Soviet government itself, said Mikoyan, not as a result of US pressure, had decided to take them back. [Document 3, Memorandum of Mikoyan's Conversation with Castro, Dorticos, Guevara, Aragonez and Rodriguez. November 22, 1962]
The IL-28 bombers came up again. Mikoyan tried to persuade Castro that "as far as Il-28s are concerned, you know yourself that they are outdated.
Presently, it is best to use them as a target plane." To this, Castro retorted: "And why did you send them to us?"
During their discussions, Castro was very emotional and at times rough with Mikoyan—criticizing the Soviet military for failing to camouflage the missiles,
for not using their anti-aircraft launchers to shoot down US U-2 spy planes, essentially allowing them to photograph the missile sites. He went
back to the initial offer of missiles and stated that the Cubans did not want the missiles, but that they accepted them as part of "fulfilling their duty
to the socialist camp." They were ready to die in a nuclear war, he declared, and were hoping that the Soviet Union would be also willing "to do the same
for us." But the Soviets had not treated the Cubans as a partner, Castro complained. They had caved in under US pressure, and had not even consulted the
Cubans about the withdrawal. Castro expressed the humiliation the Cubans felt: "What do you think we are? A zero on the left, a dirty rag. We tried to help
the Soviet Union to get out of a difficult situation."
In desperation, Castro almost begged Mikoyan to leave the tactical warheads in Cuba, especially because the Americans were not aware of them and they were
not part of the agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Castro claimed that the situation now was even worse than it had been before the crisis—Cuba was
defenseless, and the US non-invasion assurances did not mean much for the Cubans. He was concerned that the Soviets were withdrawing all their forces from
Cuba. But Mikoyan was now convinced that leaving any nuclear weapons in Cuba would be reckless and dangerous, so he rejected Castro's pleas and cited a
(nonexistent) Soviet law proscribing the transfer of nuclear weapons to third countries. Castro had a suggestion: "So you have a law that prohibits
transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to other countries? It's a pity. And when are you going to repeal that law?" Mikoyan was non-committal: "We will see.
It is our right [to do so]."
This ended Cuba's hope of becoming a Latin American nuclear superpower.
Ironically, if the Cubans had been a little more pliant, and a little less independent, if they had been more willing to be Soviet pawns, they would have
kept the tactical nuclear weapons on the island. But they showed themselves to be much more than just a parking lot for the Soviet missiles. They were a
major independent variable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mikoyan treated his Cuban hosts with great empathy and respect, while being highly critical of his
own political and military leadership. He admired the genuine character of the Cuban revolution; he saw its appeal for Latin America. But he also saw the
danger of the situation spinning out control probably better than other leaders in this tense triangle. As the new evidence in this book makes clear,
Anastas Mikoyan should be credited with the final resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.