OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Militias on Havana's Malecón during the October Crisis. Photo: Korda, Alberto

It has been 55 years since the October Crisis, or as it is also known, the Cuban Missile Crisis, considered one of the most dangerous moments the world faced during the 20th century. Humanity must never forget that we were on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, above all to do everything possible to avoid the reoccurrence of a similar situation.

In mid-August, 1962, as Soviet troops were en route to Cuba, following a bilateral agreement between the two countries, and a growing outcry began in the press and U.S. political circles predicting a crisis. 1

On August 20, in a memorandum on Cuba, CIA director John McCone wrote, "The Soviet - and probably bloc - support of Cuba was stepped up in July and August. 21 ships docked in July and 17 have docked, or are en route, in August…"

In an August 21 meeting with the Secretary of State, McCone speculated about the possible existence of ballistic missiles in Cuba, and the following day gave this same information to the President.

McCone wrote a memorandum about an August 23 meeting with President John F. Kennedy, attended by Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Robert McNamara secretary of Defense and his deputy Roswell Gilpatric; military advisor General Maxwell Taylor; and McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security assistant. He indicated that the agenda included a handwritten note referring to a third warning on missiles in Cuba. (2)

The CIA director reported to those present that the President had already been informed about the situation, (3) and Kennedy requested an analysis of the danger posed to the U.S. and asked if the missiles in Cuba could be destroyed by air or land. (4) Between August 20 and 25, the construction of several bunkers for ballistic missiles in different locations across Cuba was discovered.

That same day, August 23, in another meeting with Kennedy, McCone questioned the presence of so much anti-aircraft artillery in Cuba, speculating that these sites were perhaps being used to hide ballistic missiles. There was no doubt that bunkers were being constructed for nuclear weapons: photographs of such bunkers in the Soviet Union were identical to what had been sighted on the island, he reported. The President asked that the possibility of issuing a statement on the subject be evaluated.

In July of 1962, the Defense Department had requested an evaluation on possible courses of action, from the head of the CIA's Mongoose project, from which several proposals emerged. One suggested canceling the agency's operative plans and considering Cuba a Communist beach head in the Western Hemisphere. Another addressed eliminating the government of Fidel Castro.

By the second half of the year, the Defense Department was insisting on a direct military intervention, which was reiterated on August 7. On the 10th, the Mongoose group proposed increasing sabotage in Cuba, but Kennedy demanded a concrete plan to destroy the revolution. August 20, Maxwell Taylor stated that the Cuban government could not be overthrown without the direct involvement of U.S. armed forces.

On September 13, CIA Deputy Director Marshall Carter sent McCone a cable reporting that at least 25 Soviet ships are en route to Cuba. Declassified documents show that on the 17th, given the overwhelming evidence and many proposals, the President stated that something drastic needed to be done about Cuba, saying that he was anxiously awaiting a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which he expected the following week.

Declassified documents show that a month later, October 20, chief CIA analyst Ray S. Cline reminded Kennedy, "You have been briefed many times on the major buildup of equipment in Cuba prior to mid-October … we believe … that eight MRBM missiles can be fired from Cuba today… they could deliver a total load of 16-24 megatons."

Nevertheless, recognizing that air strikes could not ensure the destruction of all missiles in Cuba, Kennedy ruled out an attack, and opted for a naval blockade of Cuba.

Some 60 reports had been made, 40 from the Opa-Locka (5) station on the arrival of ships to Cuba delivering large containers, and convoys of trucks, guarded by Cuban soldiers, hauling very long equipment, never previously sighted on Cuban highways.

In a memorandum dated October 11, McCone stated that he showed the President photographs of the IL-28 jet bombers which had reached Havana, and Kennedy ordered him to hold the information until after the election, and asked that all subsequent information be withheld, because it was very dangerous.

Since the month of July, U.S. intelligence had been aware of shipments from various Soviet ports to Cuba. Testimony from participants in these Atlantic crossings makes this clear.

According to Sergeant Víctor Potelin, radar operator with the Soviet anti-aircraft defense troops, stated, "The U.S. acted like they owned the Mediterranean, practically flying between the ships' masts."

Sergeant Maslov, operator in the regiment's command cabin, said, "During the crossing, events occurred, like when we were crossing the Dardanelles Strait, West German intelligence was interested in the cargo we were carrying. Likewise, when we passed by Gibraltar, English intelligence reinforced measures to control maritime access to Cuba, establishing permanent aerial and naval surveillance, beginning around the Azores Islands, five days before we reached Cuba's coastline."

Colonels Kovalenko, chief officer of the R-14 missile regiment, and Semykin, principal engineer with the 43rd Missile Division, said that aerial surveillance was constant after passing the Azores, throughout the 185 crossings.

In August, Soviet units began to arrive in several Cuban ports. The USSR insisted that U.S. special services were never able to confirm exactly how many troops were on the island.

From August 1 through the 5th, anti-aircraft missiles were discovered in many areas. McCone offered the opinion that these missiles could serve to protect the ballistic ones, while reporting that by mid-September, 36 R-12 missiles had been placed in bunkers previously sighted. The Navy had put its five regional commands on alert along the north, central, western-central coasts, but this deployment did not prevent the Soviet ship Alexandrosvky from docking at the port of Mariel, with no problem. This appeared to be the point of no return, much awaited by some in the Kennedy administration.

The collaboration of Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovski, later executed for the help he provided the United States, was key. He not only reported on the operation, but supplied information about the kinds of missiles sent to Cuba, and the isolation of the ballistic weapons.

By October 22, the U.S. Air Force had prepared B-47 bombers, each one carrying nuclear warheads; five Army divisions were ready; and the Naval forces needed to enforce the blockade deployed. (6) A quarter of a million soldiers to invade Cuba, aircraft ready to carry out 2,000 missions over its territory, and reinforcements for the Guantánamo Naval base. (7)

Fidel predicted everything that would later occur. He warned on several occasions that the missiles should not be installed secretly, above all given the importance of making the military agreement between Cuba and the USSR public, since Cuba had the right to obtain the weapons it considered necessary to defend itself. 

1. International conference: "La crisis de octubre una visión política, cuarenta años después," La Habana, December 11-12, 2002

2. Document 8: Memorandum by McCone on August 23 meeting with the President
3. Declassified documents

4. Point 5 in document 73 of National Security Action Memorandum no. 181, August 23, 1962
5. Refugee center created by the CIA February 15, 1962

6. Octubre 1962, a un paso del Holocausto, p. 166

7. En el Ojo de la Tormenta, Carlos Lechuga, p.95

* The author is a researcher at the State Security Center for Historical Investigations