Review of “The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November” by Sergo Mikoyan, the late son of Anastas Mikoyan.
Bottom-line: The book says that the Soviets secretly planned to leave behind in Cuba over 100 tactical nuclear weapons after the crisis was resolved, but then reversed themselves because of obstreperous behavior by the Cuban leader.
Background: The book is partially based on secret transcripts of top-level diplomacy by A. Mikoyan and the author’s own recollections of accompanying his father on a 1960 trip to Cuba. Parts of the book were published in the same author’s 2006 Russian-language book “Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
See main points below:
Reasons behind Khrushchev’s decision to deploy nukes in Cuba
- Mikoyan recalls Khrushchev as saying: “What if we send out missiles there and deploy them quickly and unnoticeably? Then, we will notify the Americans about it, first through diplomatic channels and then publicly. That will put them in their place. They will be put in a position of the same balance of forces as with our country. Any aggression against Cuba will mean a strike on American territory. They will have to give up any plans of an invasion of Cuba.”
- The author: “The primary underlying cause of his plan, the reason this plane came into being, was Khrushchev’s desire to secure Cuba against attack and to keep the country in the Socialist bloc.” “The Soviet decision to protect and support Cuba … was not a case of a superpower’s unusual altruism with respect to a small country. It was politics based on the global view of the conflict between the two systems.” “The strategic imbalance was not the main motive for the missile deployment.”
Castro’s decision to accept missiles:
- While Soviets thought Cubans accepted missiles for defense of the island, Castro said the rationale on the Cubans’ part was that: “the deployment of strategic weapons Cuba was carried in the interest if protecting not only Cuba, but the entire socialist camp.”
- The draft Soviet-Cuban treaty, as edited by Castro, didn’t even have the word “missiles” in it.
(Not) concealing R-12 and R-14 nuclear missiles:
- Mikoyan recalls telling the Presidium during deliberations whether to send nukes: “I told him (Khrushchev) what I saw with my own eyes in the 1960’s: no woods to hide missile launchers. I knew how the Cuban landscape looked, as I flown around the island in a helicopter with Fidel… in comparison to our woods, it would be simply impossible to hide and protect the missiles from the air. I pointed to the absence of mountains or rocky places to hide the launchers.”
- “Nikita Sergeevich, it is impossible to do,” said Soviet military advisor to Cuba Gen. A.A. Dementiev when asked by Khrushchev whether it was possible to secretly install the missiles in Cuba:
Actual deployment of nuclear weapons:
- Soviet Officer V. Polkovnikov recalls: “We did not know anything about the targets to aim missiles at: we only took guesses.”
- Requirements for safe storage of Soviet tactical nuclear included specific temperature, but Soviet forces brought no air conditioners for that purpose. Fidel Castro then ordered to take the air conditioners “from the houses of prostitution in Santiago de Cuba and deliver them to our storage,” according to Soviet officer R.A. Zakirov.
Pre-delegation of use:
- Mikoyan recalls that after Kennedy announced the blockade and demanded removal of the missiles, Soviet Defense Minister “Malinovsky made a proposal to hand over command of the missile batteries to the Cubans and officials announce that the missiles are in the possession of the Cuban military.”
- Mikoyan recalls that on October 22: “Malinovsky said that he had prepared a draft message… (that) said that all means at (Pliyev’s) disposal should be in a state of readiness. Khrushchev at that point noticed that all means without any sort of qualification would include missiles, that is, the beginning of thermonuclear war. How could that be? Malinovsky could respond because it was extremely reckless on his part. There was a revision to the fact that the use of all means would exclude intermediate-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads.”
- An October 27 cable from Kremlin to Pliyev: “It is categorically confirmed that the employment of nuclear weapons in the form of FKR missiles, “Luna” missiles, or from aircraft without approval from Moscow is forbidden.”
- “The precise moment to begin the volley was even calculated in order to inflict the greatest damage possible on the enemy without inflicting the mushroom cloud’s poisonous fallout on the island. I seem to recall the USSR’s generals saying that such a (tactical nuclear) strike would occur as the Americans vessels were still at sea, but not far from Cuban shores. They would wait orders from Moscow up until that moment, so that the USSR’s forces would not fall victim to the strike.”
Informing Americans: Mikoyan recalls: “A little more than a month later (after completion of deployment) we were ready to publicly announce the deployment of a medium-range missile with nuclear warheads for the defense of Cuba from invasion. It was planned to be done via the UN.” USA was to have been informed in November, some time after mid-term elections.
Reversal of decision to leave tactical nukes in Cuba:
- When arriving in Cuba on November 2 Mikoyan initially shared other Soviet leaders’ position that IL-28’s and tactical nuclear weapons should be kept on the island, but gradually Mikoyan began to question the wisdom of leaving nuclear weapons as he realized the Soviets would not be able to fully control the Cubans and that “Cubans had too simple an attitude toward nuclear war.”
- Mikoyan even thought of showing the Cubans a documentary about effect of nuclear explosions.
- The final straw came on November 19 when Castro sent instructions to Cuba’s UN envoy 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’s November 22 cable to Kremlin: “I am thinking about saying that the Soviet Union has an unpublished law that states that any kind of atomic weapons – strategic or tactical – cannot change hands.”
- Mikoyan recalls telling Castro on November 22: “We have a law that forbids any atomic weapons from changing hands, including tactical weapons. We have not transferred it to anybody. I case of war we would use the atomic weapons to protect the entire socialist camp.
- Mikoyan convinced the Cubans on November 22 that all the tactical nuclear weapons had to be removed and left the island on November 26.
Lesson: Anticipate your adversary’s reaction and plan accordingly: “The history of international relations does not contain a similar example of a momentous foreign policy crisis that could have resulted in a catastrophic military conflict whose initiators would not even try to foresee all their adversaries’ possible responses and did not try to plan their counteractions correspondingly….The author of Operation Anadyr tried to play “chess” with only white pieces, following the principle that “the one who starts wins the game.” But such a thing could only work if the black pieces were never touched.”
Flaws in Khrushchev’s/Soviet decision-making:“The Presidium after the purges, led by Khrushchev in July 1957 saw the introduction of new members on the merits of their personnel ties and allegiances (who) could not support a full-fledged and balanced discussion…. There was continued inertia in the Kremlin to agree with the first secretary.”
- Mikoyan became the first senior Soviet official to visit Cuba, arriving in February 1960 and the “die was cast” for both Soviet-Cuban cooperation and Cuban-American confrontation. Castro and Mikoyan became friends after the Soviet official agreed to spend a night in an unfinished building in a far-flung corner of Cuba rather than return to a comfortable hotel.
- Mikoyan tried to convince Stalin in vain to accept the Marshall Plan in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
- According to a Time magazine report in 1957, wife of Georgii Malenkov complained to Anastas Mikoyan that there was a lack of pantyhose in Soviet stores. Mikoyan's reply was "Yes, but we have plenty portraits of Stalin."