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Soviet Actions and Reactions
in the Cuban Missile Crisis
by
Raymond L. Garthoff
Brookings Institution

In the last few years we have learned a great deal about what happened during the missile crisis, especially from a series of encounters with former Soviet officials. Some questions that used to perplex us have now been answered, or at least clarified, such as who was responsible for shooting down the U-2 and why. We now know much more about the Soviet military deployment in Cuba, including the fact that it comprised a Soviet conventional force much larger than we estimated at the time, and that it had tactical nuclear weapons-with predelegation to the four-star Soviet commander of forces in Cuba to use them against an American invasion force.

There remain, however, some key questions on which we shall probably never know the answer. One is the relative weight of several motivations in Khrushchev's mind in deciding to send nuclear-armed medium-range missiles to Cuba-was it primarily to deter an American attack on Cuba, as the Soviets have insisted? Or was it a desire to shore up their very weak position in the strategic balance between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1962? And if, or rather to the extent it was the latter, was it principally seen as a defensive imperative in view of the fact that the Soviet Union was so strategically vulnerable, or to buttress the Soviet hand for a new offensive round of confrontation over Berlin? Another set of questions concerns contingency decisions which we will never know because they never had to be made-above all, what would the Soviet leadership have done if the United States had launched an air attack and/or an invasion of Cuba? I do have my answers to those questions, but there are divided views today, as in 1962, among American participants and students of the crisis, and among Russians as well. I'll touch on some of them. For the most part, however, I shall note some of the new information on Soviet intentions, assessments, actions and reactions in the crisis.

One other caveat: while we do have some new and important documentary material, such as the full Khrushchev-Kennedy and Khrushchev-Castro correspondence, most of the Soviet disclosures (like American sources for the first two decades after the crisis) are memoir material, or in some cases statements by people who have been able to consult some archives (especially those of the Foreign Ministry and the General Staff), but not the actual archival data. Russian memoirs, not unlike our own, can be very useful, but they are also at best selective and sometimes misleading or in error and must be used with care and caution.

The Soviet decision to place the missiles in Cuba was made over the period from late April to mid-June 1962. It was Khrushchev's idea, and it included three considerations: First, the Soviet Union faced a problem in the emergence, and American public exposure, of a reverse "missile gap" of growing U.S. strategic superiority, which the Soviet Union could not match with intercontinental delivery systems for a number of years. Second, the Cubans most keenly, but also the Soviets, believed the United States was likely to invade Cuba after the failure of the Bay of Pigs proxy invasion. The United States had launched in 1961-62 a multifaceted offensive against Cuba: an economic embargo, political isolation and suspension of Cuba from the OAS, the "Mongoose" sabotage and subversion program in Cuba, and even assassination plots against Fidel Castro. Moreover, military contingency plans were being exercised. Third, the United States was drawing even tighter the encirclement of the Soviet Union itself with air and now missile forces, including IRBMs in Turkey, in the Soviet backyard, so to speak. This rankled politically, and psychologically, at least as much as it was a strategic concern.

Why not, thought Khrushchev, kill three birds with one stone by placing Soviet medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, of which they had plenty, in Cuba. This would emulate the United States and rub its nose in a like situation, while bolstering Castro and deterring an American attack on Cuba. At the same time, these "ersatz ICBMS" targeted on the United States would tide the Soviet Union over until the third generation SS-9 and SS-11 missiles were ready to deploy later in the decade. Finally, the success of such a deployment secretly undertaken and suddenly disclosed would face the United States with a fait accompli, and put it on the defensive psychologically, contributing to a favorable climate again to press for a resolution of the anomalous Berlin "bone in their throat," as he had called it.

Anastas Mikoyan, the veteran Politburo member and first deputy prime minister, a close colleague, was the first member of the leadership on whom Khrushchev tried out the idea. He didn't like it. But he objected mainly on two counts: Castro wouldn't agree, and it couldn't be done secretly. In a somewhat larger group of the leadership, Khrushchev dealt with these objections by saying they would find out Castro's view by asking, and they would ask the military to determine feasibility and ability to carry out the deployment surreptitiously. (Incidentally, the new ambassador-designate to Havana, Alexander Alexeyev, the former KGB station chief in Cuba who was closer to Castro than anyone else, also thought Fidel would say no.) Khrushchev had privately sounded out Andrei Gromyko, Foreign Minister but not then yet a member of the political leadership, and Gromyko had argued that the American reaction would be very negative. But Gromyko didn't say it couldn't be handled, and he didn't speak up in the meetings of leaders. Khrushchev's foreign policy aide, Alexander Troyanovsky, with experience in the United States, learning of the decision only after it had been made, also privately tried to warn Khrushchev of the American reaction, but his warnings too were brushed aside.

Castro readily accepted, but on the understanding that the deployment was not to defend Cuba, but to contribute to the socialist camp in the overall correlation of forces-in other words, to bolster the strategic position of the Soviet bloc vis-a-vis the imperialists.

The military were positively inclined, especially Marshal Biriuzov, the recently named head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, and the man chosen to make the pitch to Castro and to evaluate feasibility and secrecy. He said it could be done, and secretly.

When told in May 1962 to work up an appropriate deployment, the Soviet General Staff settled on a three-part force: First, a composite division of strategic missile forces, 3 regiments with 24 R-12 (SS-4) MRBM launchers, and 2 regiments with 16 R-14 (SS-5) IRBM launchers, each to have 150% complement of combat missiles and nuclear warheads, in all 36 SS-4s and 24 SS-5s (plus 6 training SS-4s and 4 training SS-5s). Second, ground, air, air defense, and coastal defense components of a substantial conventional force to reinforce both deterrence and capability for defense. Third, at a later time, it was planned that a Soviet naval contingent (both surface ships and submarines) would also be based in Cuba.

By the time that the United States had discovered missiles in Cuba and imposed the quarantine on October 23, the entire SS-4 force was already in Cuba, including its 36 nuclear warheads. None of the SS-5 force was yet there, except for some of the equipment and the construction materials for the launching sites. All the SS-5 missiles were still en route, and turned back without ever reaching Cuba. Some of the nuclear warheads for the SS-5s, we are told, had arrived and remained throughout in the ship that had brought them.

That account is consistent with what we saw at the time, although some details are new (such as the 150% complement of combat missiles and warheads).

The air defense forces had all been sent to Cuba relatively early in the summer buildup. They comprised one regiment of 40 MiG-21s, two regiments of 24 SA-2 (Soviet: S-75) surface-to-air missile launchers with 144 launchers, and appropriate radars. Those were all observed in 1962.

The ground force component comprised four reinforced motorized rifle regiments, in effect brigades, of about 3,500 men each, each with one battalion of 35 tanks, APCS, antitank missiles, etc. Each of three of these regiments also had one battery of 2 Luna (FROG) launchers for tactical rockets with a range of up to 60km. The normal loading was eight conventionally armed rockets per launcher. But they were also nuclear-capable, and we are now told the six launchers in Cuba had a 150% complement of tactical nuclear warheads, three with each of the three batteries, 9 tactical nuclear warheads in all. In addition, support for the ground forces included two regiments with 18 conventionally armed tactical long-range (150km) cruise missile (FKR) launchers and 80 cruise missiles (never identified by U.S. intelligence in 1962, although supported by evidence). The air force support element included a regiment of 33 IL-28 light bombers with conventional bombs, a regiment of Mi-8 transport helicopters, and a squadron of LI-2 light transport aircraft.

The coastal defense forces included 4 fixed "Sopka" S-2 (Samlet) coast defense cruise missile sites, each with a battery of two launchers, and in all 32 missiles with an 80km range. In addition to the Air Force IL-28 regiment, a separate Naval squadron of 9 IL-28s was also provided for attacks at sea against landing forces. Finally, 12 Komar patrol boats, each with two rocket launchers for missiles with a 40km range were provided to assist in coastal defense, including actions against small ships landing covert infiltrators.

In all, the force would number some 45,000 men, of whom about 42,000 were there when the quarantine descended. This was over four times as many Soviet military personnel as were estimated by U.S. intelligence in mid-October, three times as many as were estimated at the peak of the crisis in November, and nearly twice as many as the 22,000 retroactively estimated even in 1963 after the crisis. Moreover they constituted a Soviet "Group of Forces," an expeditionary force, not advisors and technicians.

The Naval component planned for possible later introduction would have comprised one surface squadron of two cruisers, two destroyers, and smaller supporting ships, and a submarine squadron of eleven general purpose subs. But none of this force was ever sent.

Incidentally, one of the four regimental commanders in Cuba during the crisis was Colonel Dmitri Yazov, much later the Minister of Defense, who joined the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991. His regiment was the one selected to remain when the others were withdrawn in 1963 and Castro pressed the Soviets to leave at least one thin "plate glass" unit. Redesignated a brigade, it remained only to be "rediscovered" with excessive eclat in 1979. It is at present being withdrawn by Russia over strong Cuban objections.

The Soviet forces in Cuba were under strict orders not to engage in combat except under American attack. The medium-range, nuclear-armed missiles were not to be fired under any circumstances without specific authorization from Commander-in-Chief Nikita Khrushchev. The air, air defense, and coastal defense forces were only to engage if the United States attacked Cuba. Nonetheless, on October 27, after Castro had ordered his own antiaircraft artillery to begin firing at low-flying U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, the Soviet command activated its air defense radars, and when a U-2 came into range, the local Soviet air defense commanders ordered a SAM unit to shoot it down. Khrushchev, not having authorized the action, at first even assumed that the Cubans must have shot the plane down. Marshal Malinovsky chided the Soviet Cuban command and ordered no more combat action, but he did not even reprimand the local commanders for exceeding instructions.

A formal Soviet-Cuban agreement covering the deployment of Soviet forces had been drawn up in early July, revised, and initialled in September, but Khrushchev never signed it. Castro had from the outset argued for making the general agreement, if not specific reference to missiles, public. But Khrushchev wanted to keep the missile deployment secret until November when it would be a fait accompli, and he feared Castro would make some kind of public statement if the agreement were signed, so he held back.

Castro was, of course, infuriated by Khrushchev's secret negotiation and agreement with the Americans on withdrawal of the missiles. The gap between their thinking was best illustrated by the fact that at the very time Khrushchev was agreeing to remove the missiles, Castro was advising him (in a cable sent early on the 27th) in the event of a U.S. invasion of Cuba to strike the United States first with Soviet nuclear force rather than concede the initiative to the United States. For Castro, an invasion to wipe out Communism in Cuba would be the start of a global war between Socialism and Imperialism. For Khrushchev, it would be no such thing, and the Soviet Union must be kept from being drawn into a war in Cuba.

As I mentioned earlier, there remain divided views on what Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership would have done if the United States had attacked Cuba. I have no doubt that they would not have escalated by a Soviet military countermove anywhere-not in Berlin, not attacking the missiles in Turkey, not at sea. And I believe the actions taken during the crisis, while not conclusive, support that judgment. No Soviet participant in the 1962 crisis has produced any direct evidence of a decision one way or the other on such a contingency decision. Based on what we know so far, there were apparently no contingency plans for such escalation, and that argues against the likelihood. But even if there were such plans that would be no certain indication that they would have been activated. Soviet participants are divided in their own (usually privately expressed) opinions.

The conflict in Cuba, however, could have escalated drastically. Soviet forces in Cuba would, of course, have fought. And apparently they would have used tactical nuclear weapons against the U.S. landing force in Cuba. I assume that the United States would then have used nuclear weapons against all suspected nuclear delivery systems in Cuba. But I believe the conflict would have remained limited to Cuba. The Soviet Union would have absorbed the loss and sought to portray the United States as responsible for the war.

We do know that Khrushchev sharply cut off the one suggestion at the outset of the crisis (by acting Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov) that the Soviet Union mount a counter-quarantine or other action against Berlin to place pressure on the United States. He also rejected suggestions to attempt to run the blockade. While Khrushchev apparently believed for the first two or three days (October 22-24) that the United States would come around to accepting at least the limited missile deployment already in Cuba, by the middle of the week he realized that it would not, and began bargaining for the best deal on the withdrawal of the missiles.

The key element in the settlement deal for Khrushchev was the American pledge not to invade Cuba, which he could use as justification for withdrawing the missiles by claiming that the only purpose of the deployment had been to deter such an invasion. And that remained the Soviet interpretation ever after. In fact, the negotiations over a U.S. pledge bogged down and by early January the Soviets gave up on the attempt to get one. The United States insisted that no commitment could diminish our rights and obligations under other treaties, including the Rio Treaty and Article 51 of the UN Charter on self-defense. We were prepared to restate (as President Kennedy did publicly and privately) our intention not to invade, but we were determined not to give a blank check that would tie our hands no matter what Castro or the Soviet Union were to do.

The unpublicized U.S. statement of its intention to withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy in five months was a "sweetner," and despite our disclaimers it was a consideration in the deal, but it was not a direct part of the reciprocal obligations, and was subject to NATO decision on the withdrawal and replacement with a Polaris missile commitment. Castro, incidentally, was angered by Khrushchev's proposal for a tradeoff of Cuban for Turkish missile withdrawals, since it reduced the missiles in Cuba to being a pawn in a great power deal.

The withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, whatever its dividend in ending the likelihood of a U.S. invasion, did not in any way help the Soviet problem of weakness in the strategic balance. Indeed, the impression of Soviet retreat bolstered the world's awareness of the weakness of the Soviet strategic position.

Despite the tremendous U.S. strategic superiority, President Kennedy was not prepared to attack Cuba or press Khrushchev to the wall, if he could get the missiles out with no U.S. commitment going beyond what he intended in any case: not to invade Cuba without provocation, and to withdraw the vulnerable and obsolescent IRBM missiles from Turkey and Italy. We now know that he was more inclined to make further concessions in this direction than to order an attack if Khrushchev had not on October 28 accepted his demand and offer. "Mutual deterrence" and the fear of nuclear war was more important than the strategic balance of power.


22 September 2003