On October 27, I attended the Cold War Conversations IV Conference at George Mason University (GMU) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conference was dedicated to Major Rudolph Anderson, who lost his life as a result of being shot down while on a U2 photographic reconnaissance mission over Cuba on 27 October 1962. That day became known as Black Saturday, as the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war. American Military University was one of the sponsors who helped underwrite the cost of this event, which was attended by more than 300 people.
The conference began with a full breakfast at the Mason Inn, where we enjoyed a great meal and a wonderful conversation with Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, who was seated next to me. Dr. Khrushchev, the son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, lives in Rhode Island, where he is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, RI. He often speaks to American audiences to share his memories of the “other side” of the Cold War, and serves as an advisor to the Cold War Museum, located at Vint Hill Farms Station in Fauquier County, Virginia.
Following breakfast, the conference attendees gathered at the Harris Theater for the panel discussions. The panel members included Dr. Khrushchev, who authored Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Super Power; Mr. Dino Brugioni, a renowned photographic interpreter and author of Eyeball to Eyeball; Col. Buddy Brown, USAF (Ret.), one of the 11 U-2 pilots (only four are still living) who flew high-altitude reconnaissance over Cuba; and Lt. Cmdr. Tad Riley, USN (Ret.), a F8U-1P Crusader pilot who flew low-altitude reconnaissance over Cuba.
Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya, author of The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis and National Security Archives Director for Russian Archives and Institutes, also provided insight from the Soviet perspective. The panel was moderated by Dr. Martin Sherwin, a GMU History professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author on Robert Oppenheimer. He also is writing a book, Gambling with Armageddon, about the nuclear arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The panel members (with the exception of Dr. Savranskaya) recounted their memories of the 13 days (16-28 October 1962) following the discovery of Soviet medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Dr. Sherwin led the panel through the discussions with key questions directed at each member, who responded from his own unique perspective.
The discussions revealed just how close we came to World War III, even closer than either Khrushchev or President Kennedy realized. The instigator was a Soviet submarine captain who had given the order to load and prepare to fire a nuclear armed torpedo, in response to depth charges being dropped in an attempt to surface the submarine. He thought that he was under attack, but his order was challenged by a more level-headed naval officer, who merely by chance had been assigned to travel to Cuba aboard that sub. Apparently, a total of four submarines had departed the Soviet Union for Cuba, each armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo. One of the four had to turn back due to mechanical problems. These facts were unknown at the time, but revealed several years later by the Soviets.
The panel members highlighted other missteps and errors in judgment that easily could have triggered a nuclear war. A Soviet commander was badgered by Fidel Castro to fire a surface-to-air missile at a USAF U2 flying over Cuba. The missile, which found its mark and killed Maj. Anderson, had been fired without authorization from Moscow. Neither Kennedy nor his advisors knew that at the time. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged him to retaliate against the offending missile site. However, the President was reluctant to do so, knowing that this could cause the situation to escalate into a global war. In addition, a U2 flew over Soviet airspace due to pilot error, but luckily was able to land safely in Turkey. This act could have been interpreted by the Soviets as an act of aggression, signaling preparations by the U.S. for a nuclear attack.
Dr. Khrushchev revealed that his father was conflicted about the crisis. He had recklessly gambled that nuclear missiles could be installed undetected in Cuba, and was desperately seeking a way to escape the consequences of the standoff. He wanted the crisis to end peacefully, but he had no intention of giving up the missiles without getting something in return. President Kennedy too was dealing with powerful conflicting emotions. He realized that if he made a mistake in this crisis, more than 200 million people would be killed. He wanted a peaceful resolution as well, but his bottom line was that the Soviet missiles had to be removed from Cuba.
Valuable lessons learned from this showdown were that crisis managers can’t manage everything, and that sometimes, extraordinary good luck or plain dumb luck saves the day.