Cuba During the Missile Crisis

Fifty years later, Cubans remember preparing to fight the Americans.

Militiamen trained in the Escambray mountains while superpowers tested each other’s resolve. The background in this composite image is from a U-2 photo of Cuba. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)
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Almost four hours after the U-2 was hit, several U.S. Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft flying low-level photo-reconnaissance missions over Cuba were also fired on. One was hit by a 37-mm shell but managed to return to base in Key West, Florida. Miami resident Eriberto Diaz, now 82, lived in the Ciego de Avila region of Cuba and remembers such flights: “One or two American observation planes flew very low near our house. My mother and I could hear them but did not see them. Later, I heard that one of the American planes had been shot down. I thought, This can’t be good.”

At 4 p.m. the day of the U-2 shootdown, Kennedy urgently summoned his advisers to the White House. A message was sent to U.N. Secretary General U Thant asking the Soviets to suspend work on the missiles while negotiations were carried out. During Kennedy’s meeting, Army General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the news about Anderson and the U-2. Though his advisers urged him to retaliate against Cuba or at least allow U.S. pilots to return fire if attacked, the president resisted.

Late on October 27, Kennedy agreed to a dual strategy: a formal letter to Khrushchev accepting the non-invasion pledge, along with a secret agreement that Washington would remove the Jupiter missiles in Turkey and southern Italy if the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. If that secrecy were breached, the American public and NATO allies would see the deal as a concession to blackmail. Though the crisis was over, the full terms of the agreement would not become publicly known until years later.

Whose idea was it to put the missiles in Cuba? Historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger told National Public Radio in October 2002 that he believed Castro did not want the missiles, but that Khrushchev pressured him to take them. Khrushchev seemed to back that up in his memoirs, the first volume of which was published in 1970: “It would have been ridiculous for us to go to war over Cuba—for a country 12,000 miles away. For us, war was unthinkable. We ended up getting what we’d wanted all along: security for Fidel Castro’s regime and American missiles removed from Turkey.”

Crucial to the peaceful resolution of the crisis was that the missiles in Cuba were always under Soviet control. Castro, Khrushchev writes, “was hot-headed” and had pleaded for Moscow to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Castro’s second-in-command, Che Guevara, told the London Daily Worker in November 1962 that had Castro gained control of the missiles, “We would have used them against the very heart of the U.S., including New York.”

In the Cuban-Soviet relationship, the Soviets clearly had the upper hand, says Suchlicki. “The Soviets used Fidel, plain and simple,” he says. “If they had wanted to protect Fidel, they would have made him part of the Warsaw Pact and made the island a protectorate. No, the Soviets brought missiles to Cuba to barter with the U.S., to make the Soviet Union as powerful and influential as the U.S., and to redress the balance of nuclear power.”

But del Pino is certain the missiles were Castro’s idea. “The truth is that Castro proposed the idea to Khrushchev, who, in accepting the offer, fell into the Cuban dictator’s trap,” he says. Both the Bay of Pigs victory and the missile crisis “had paved the way for Fidel to fight the war he had always wanted to wage against the United States, a war that would assure him a place in history.”

Though that war did not come, the crisis led to significant actions on both sides. Washington and Moscow set up the Hotline Agreement, establishing a direct means of communication between the White House and the Kremlin. The body of Anderson, who posthumously became the first recipient of the new Air Force Cross medal, was returned to the United States and buried in November 1962 with full honors in Greenville, South Carolina.

For many Cubans, the crisis marked a turning point in their lives. “I remember looking at the palm trees and the sky and thinking, It is all still here. Havana didn’t go up like a bonfire,” Gonzales says. “It was right there and then that I decided I was leaving Cuba.” He left within a few months.

Rafael Lima is a communications professor at the University of Miami.

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