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One Minute To Midnight
Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

By Michael Dobbs

Posted - July 2, 2008

For more information contact:
Michael Dobbs - www.michaeldobbsbooks.com

WEEK 1: THE SOVIET PLAN TO DESTROY GUANTANAMO (Posted June 4, 2008)

WEEK 2: MISSING OVER THE SOVIET UNION (Posted June 11, 2008)

WEEK 3: TRACING THE NUCLEAR WARHEADS (Posted June 18, 2008)

WEEK 4: THE SHOOTDOWN OF MAJOR ANDERSON (Posted June 25, 2008)

ABOUT THIS SERIES

When Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs first decided to write a book about the Cuban missile crisis, the question he was most frequently asked was, “What is there new to say about a subject that has been so exhaustively studied?” The answer, it turned out, was “a great deal.” Two years of research in half a dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, and Cuba, turned up a surprising amount of new information about the thirteen days in October 1962 when the world had its closest brush with nuclear destruction. His minute-by-minute narrative also explodes some long-accepted myths, repeated for decades by missile crisis scholars.

Over the next five weeks, the National Security Archive will publish some of the key primary sources behind One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. The new information includes such episodes as a startling Soviet plan to destroy the Guantanamo naval base, the storage and handling of Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba, and the “Eyeball to Eyeball” confrontation between U.S. and Soviet ships that never happened.

The revelations in One Minute to Midnight shed new light on presidential decision-making at moments of supreme tension. Some of the information that flowed into the Oval Office during the crisis was erroneous. U.S. intelligence analysts seriously under-estimated the number of Soviet military personnel in Cuba and failed to identify the bunkers for Soviet nuclear warheads, despite possessing photographic evidence that is being published for the first time in One Minute to Midnight. Soviet and U.S. leaders consistently misinterpreted each other’s signals.

American scholars have traditionally treated the Cuban missile crisis as a case study in the art of crisis management. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. praised Kennedy’s “brilliantly controlled…matchlessly calibrated” handling of the Soviets. The new revelations suggest that the crisis is better understood as an example of the limits of crisis management and presidential power. As told by Dobbs, the missile crisis is a case study of “government by exhaustion” in which frazzled policy-makers struggle to master the chaotic forces of history that they themselves helped to unleash.

 


One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
By Michael Dobbs

Order now at Amazon.com

 


The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
The 40th Anniversary

Docments, photos, audio clips and more from the historic 40th anniversary conference in Havana

THIS WEEK: THE "EYEBALL TO EYEBALL" MYTH

Washington, DC, July 2, 2008 - Senior Kennedy administration aides claimed incorrectly that U.S. warships had come “eyeball to eyeball” with Soviet missile-carrying ships during the Cuban missile crisis, a myth that has persisted for over four decades, according to evidence published today by the National Security Archive.

A new book by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs plots the positions of Soviet and American ships on October 24, 1962, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that “we were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.” It shows that the missile-carrying ships were already headed back to the Soviet Union at this point, and were at least 500 nautical miles from the closest American warship.

This is the last of five postings looking at the new material in One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, which draws on the National Security Archive's long-standing documentary work on the Cuban missile crisis. The book also tracks the movement of Soviet submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes during the crisis in the vicinity of the quarantine barrier.

 


Dean Rusk's "eyeball to eyeball" quote has long epitomized the essence of the Cuban missile crisis--a High Noon showdown between a cool and youthful president of the United States and an emotional, risk-taking Communist dictator in Moscow. The defining Cold War showdown has even become part of the current presidential election campaign, with Barack Obama emphasizing the importance of talking to America's enemies and the McCain camp pointing to the failed Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in June 1961.

The claim that Soviet missile-carrying ships turned back at the last moment after being confronted by American warships has appeared in many missile crisis books, including Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir Thirteen Days (1968), One Hell of a Gamble by Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko (1997), and Essence of Decision by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow (2nd edition, 1999). It was also the emotional centerpiece of a Hollywood movie on the missile crisis, Thirteen Days (2000). RFK sets the scene in his memoir:

It was now a few minutes after 10:00 o'clock. Secretary McNamara announced that two Russian ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, were within a few miles of our quarantine barrier. The interception of both ships would probably be before noon Washington time. Indeed, the expectation was that at least one of the vessels would be stopped and boarded between 10:30 and 11:00 o'clock.

In fact, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had ordered his missile-carrying ships to turn more than 24 hours before, on the morning of October 23, soon after Kennedy went on nationwide television to announce the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A record of Khrushchev’s decision is available in the minutes of a Soviet Communist party presidium meeting. [An English translation is available here.] The notes refer to an order from Khrushchev for the return of “the ships that did not arrive yet,” drawing agreement from other presidium members. “Everyone says that is correct.”

According to Soviet shipping records, Khrushchev permitted five ships already close to Cuba to proceed to the island.  Since these ships were only a few hours’ sailing time from the closest Cuban port, there was little risk that they would be intercepted by U.S. warships. The ships included the Aleksandrovsk, which was carrying nuclear warheads to Cuba, and its escort ship, the Almatyevsk, which arrived at the port of La Isabela at dawn on October 23. The three other ships were the Divnogorsk, the Dubno, and the Nikolaevsk. The Soviet leader also ordered four submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes to remain in the vicinity of the quarantine line. Ships and oil tankers carrying non-military equipment were authorized to proceed to Cuba.

According to Soviet records, the orders to 16 missile-carrying ships to reverse course went out early in the morning of October 23. This is consistent with a later reconstruction of the movement of Soviet ships by the U.S. Navy and the CIA. A senior U.S. Navy official, Captain Isaac Kidd, noted “for the record” on October 25 that “the Russian ships turned around at 230800A.” The time group is equivalent to 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time in Washington or 10 a.m. Moscow time on October 23.

The Soviet ships closest to the quarantine barrier were the Kimovsk (not the Komiles, as RFK incorrectly stated in his memoirs) and the Yuri Gagarin. According to Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Navy was expecting to make contact with the Kimovsk between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Washington time on October 24. A Navy diagram of the blockade line is available here. The National Security Agency had been receiving preliminary reports of Soviet ships turning around throughout the night, but the evidence was inconclusive, and the agency did not inform Navy Flag Plot of the development until 10:40 a.m. See NSA intercepts here and Navy logs here. When President Kennedy heard the news, he immediately ordered the aircraft carrier Essex not to engage the Soviet ships, and give them time to turn around. The Essex was contacted by sideband radio between 10:45 and 11 a.m.

In fact, both the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin were already more than 500 nautical miles from the blocade line at this point, heading back toward the Soviet Union. One Minute to Midnight is the first book to plot the actual positions of Soviet and U.S. ships on October 23 and 24. See CIA information on the Soviet ships here and U.S. Navy information here.


Even though the ships were later discovered to have been far apart, RFK accurately depicted the mood in the White House on the morning of October 24. At the time, Excomm members were convinced that a confrontation was imminent. There were various conflicting reports about the situation on the blocade line. At 5 p.m. that afternoon, CIA director John McCone dictated a note citing reports that “an intercept had been attempted at 10:35 a.m. with the Kimovsk, and that the ship had turned around when confronted by a Navy vessel.”

Adding to the concern at the White House was the presence of a Soviet submarine in the vicinity of the quarantine line. [See the contemporaneous notes of deputy defense secretary Roswell Gilpatric available here.] The Soviet submarine was a Foxtrot class diesel submarine commanded by Nikolai Shumkov. Its Soviet designation was B-130, and it was given the designation C-18 by the U.S. Navy. (Gilpatric uses the designation N-22, which may refer to a still classified NSA designation.) For details on the sightings of C-18 and other Soviet submarines, see U.S. Navy logs here. According to the Navy records, C-18/B-130 was first spotted at 11:04 a.m. on October 23 (1504Z) but it had evidently been picked up earlier by NSA electronic eavesdropping techniques. The submarine bore the number 945 on its conning tower.

At the request of the Pentagon, the State Department had sent a message to Moscow early on October 24 notifying the Kremlin of their intention to bring Soviet submarines to the surface. The signal consisted of practice depth charges dropped on top of the submarines. Information about the signals was never passed on to the Soviet submariners, who were alarmed to hear depth charges exploding around them. B-130 was eventually brought to the surface by the Essex carrier group.

For more information on the role played by Soviet submarines during the missile crisis, see this electronic briefing book from the National Security Archive.

More information on the U.S. Naval blocade of Cuba in October 1962, including the drama aboard the Soviet submarines, can be found in One Minute to Midnight, available through Amazon.com.


PREVIOUS POSTS

WEEK 1: THE SOVIET PLAN TO DESTROY GUANTANAMO (Posted June 4, 2008)

WEEK 2: MISSING OVER THE SOVIET UNION (Posted June 11, 2008)

WEEK 3: TRACING THE NUCLEAR WARHEADS (Posted June 18, 2008)

WEEK 4: THE SHOOTDOWN OF MAJOR ANDERSON (Posted June 25, 2008)

 

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