It was Saturday evening, October 27, 1962, the day the world came very close to destruction. The crisis was not over. Soviet ships had not yet tried to run the United States (U.S.) naval blockade, but the missiles were still on Cuban soil. In Cuba, work continued on the missile sites to make them operational. The situation could either be resolved soon, or events could get out of hand and people would die. That afternoon, a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane had been shot down by mistake. "The Soviet leader had given orders not to shoot down any U-2 surveillance planes. A local Soviet commander violated those orders on October 27 when he downed Major Rudolph's Anderson's U-2 with a surface-to-air missile. Soviet officials seem to have understood this could have brought retaliatory strikes and perhaps even a U.S. invasion."
The Soviet position seemed to be hardening with the arrival of a letter Saturday morning from Khrushchev demanding that the U.S. remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a condition of Soviet removal of the missiles in Cuba. "The letter struck U.S. officials as an ominous hardening of the Soviet position from the previous day's letter from Khrushchev, which had omitted any mention of American missiles in Turkey but had instead implied that Washington's pledge not to invade Cuba would be sufficient to obviate the need for Soviet nuclear protection of Castro's revolution."
The seeds of this crisis go back several years. In 1953, Stalin died and there was a struggle for leadership of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev prevailed, becoming party leader on September 7 of that year, and on December 7th of that year he had his main rival, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria, executed. Khrushchev's leadership marked a crucial transition for the Soviet Union. He pursued a course of reform and shocked delegates to the 20th Party Congress on February 23, 1956 by making what became known in the West as his "secret speech" denouncing the cult of Stalin, and accusing him of crimes committed during the Great Purges. He declared, "it is impossible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism -- Leninism to elevate one person and transform him into a superman with supernatural characteristics akin to those of a God."
This alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the Party, but he managed to defeat what he termed the Anti-Party Group after they failed in a bid to oust him from the party leadership in 1957. The speech was typical Khrushchev, shrewd and reckless at the same time. "While it enabled him to tar his domestic rivals as Stalinists, its acknowledgement of many roads to socialism was a direct incitement to anti-Communist rebellion in Poland."
In the summer of 1956, he had to go to Warsaw to personally oversee a crackdown in order to save his own skin.
On March 27, 1958, Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union and established himself as head of both the state and the party. He began a reform of the economy, stressing the production of consumer goods over heavy industry. His view of the West as a rival rather than an evil entity alienated China's leadership and led to the Sino-Soviet split in 1960.
Khrushchev was regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as a boorish, uncivilized peasant, with a reputation for interrupting speakers to insult them. He once interrupted British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during a speech at the United Nations (UN) The Politburo accused him once of hare-brained scheming - referring to his erratic policy. This was the leader of the Soviet Union as major changes were occuring in Cuba.
Following a six-year battle that ended with the toppling of Cuban dictator General Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba. The following year, in February, Soviet Deputy First Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba with the intent of moving Cuba away from economic dependence upon the U.S. This was not the first contact between Cuba and the Soviet Union. In April 1959, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and an admitted communist, contacted Moscow with a request for military advisors to help him consolidate his hold over the Cuban military.
Several months after the visit by Mikoyan, on May 7, 1960, Cuba and the Soviet Union officially established diplomatic relations. The United States responded to this on July 8, by suspending the Cuban sugar quota, cutting off about 80% of Cuba's exports to the U.S. On August 28, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, who in turn, countered by nationalizing about one billion dollars of U.S. investments in Cuba on October 8. In September 1960, the first Soviet military assistance arrived on Cuban soil. It consisted of everything from small arms to anti-aircraft batteries. Soviet military advisors also accompanied these arms.
By the end of 1960, relations between the United States and Cuba had seriously deteriorated. On December 19, Cuba and the Soviet Union issued a joint announcement that Cuba would hereafter align itself with the domestic and foreign policies of the Soviet Union and committed itself to solidarity with the Sino-Soviet bloc. On January 2, 1961, Khrushchev told a gathering at the Cuban Embassy in Moscow, "alarming news is coming from Cuba at present, news that the most aggressive American monopolists are preparing a direct attack on Cuba. What is more, they are trying to present the case as though rocket bases are being set up or are already established in Cuba. It is well know that this is a foul slander. There is no Soviet military base in Cuba."
The next day, the United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations, the U.S. turning over the handling of its affairs to Switzerland and Cuba to Czechoslovakia. It was in this environment that President John F. Kennedy took office. He was inaugurated on January 20, 1960.
On April 17-18, 1960, President Kennedy suffered a major foreign policy defeat after the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion failed. Of the 1,400 anti-Cuban emigres, 1,189 were captured and 114 killed. By coincidence, April 17 was Khrushchev's birthday. The next day, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent a memo to his brother saying, "if we don't want Russia to set up missile bases in Cuba, we had better decide now what we are willing to do to stop it."
He identified three possible courses of action: (1) sending U.S. troops into Cuba, a proposal, "you have already rejected for good and sufficient reasons (although this might have to be reconsidered);"
(2) placing a strict naval blockade around Cuba; or (3) calling on the Organization of American States (OAS) to prohibit the shipment to Cuba of arms from any outside source. He also wrote that, "something forceful and determined must be done. The time has come for a showdown for in a year or two the situation will be vastly worse."
It was a statement that would turn out to be very prophetic.
Khrushchev's response to the Bay of Pigs invasion was predictable. In a message to Kennedy after the outcome was assured, he said, "aggressive bandit actions cannot save your system. In the historic process every people decides and will decide the fate of its country itself."
He also confided in his son that he thought Kennedy was indecisive. He had assumed that the U.S. would land American troops after the initial invasion began to run into trouble, using Marines, and bombing the island with their own planes to ensure an exile victory.
Khrushchev decided that Kennedy had been seriously weakened by the failed invasion and decided it was time to meet with him. On May 12, he accepted a long-standing invitation to meet with Kennedy and talks were scheduled for June 3-4 in Vienna. It is very possible that the seeds of the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later were sown here. Khrushchev certainly believed that the Bay of Pigs had weakened Kennedy enough that he could take the bold step of placing offensive weapons in Cuba.
At the summit in Vienna, Khrushchev took a hard tack with Kennedy. Kennedy later told the press that Khrushchev's demands had made the prospects for war very real. Khrushchev himself was pleased with the outcome and told associates later that he felt Kennedy was someone he could bully. "He concluded that Kennedy was a mere 'boy' and he was therefore thinking about 'what we can do in our interest and at the same time subject Kennedy to a test of strength.'"
He told his aides that Kennedy had wishy-washy behavior saying, "I know for certain that Kennedy doesn't have a strong backbone, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.'"
But if Kennedy displayed weakness toward Khrushchev, he was showing strength toward Castro. On November 30, 1961, he authorized "Operation Mongoose," a major covert action aimed at overthrowing the Castro government. It was placed under the guidance of his brother, Robert. It would…