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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Castro Faults Soviets for Missile Crisis

APHavana's Crisis of October museum exhibiting missiles positioned in Cuba in 1962.
HAVANA -- President Fidel Castro said on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis that Nikita Khrushchev helped create the conflict by misleading U.S. President John F. Kennedy -- indicating that there were no nuclear weapons on the communist island.

Castro's comments, which came in an interview with ABC's "20/20" program, coincided with a conference here bringing together Cubans and Americans who played roles during the real life Cold War drama. ABC, which will broadcast the interview Friday, made the transcript public Wednesday.

"He believed what Khrushchev told him," Castro said during the interview, conducted this week in Havana. "Therefore, Kennedy was misled. That was a very big mistake on the part of Khrushchev ... one that we opposed vehemently."

The transcript is not clear on how lying to Kennedy contributed to the crisis, but it implies that being misled made the American president more distrustful of the Soviet leader.

Documents from that period show that Khrushchev continued to insist to American officials in mid-October 1962 that all Soviet activity in Cuba was defensive -- even after U.S. officials had spy plane photographs showing that on the island there were Soviet surface-to-surface missiles with a range of approximately 960 to 2,400 kilometers.

The discovery of the Soviet nuclear warheads just 145 kilometers south of Florida brought the world to the edge of nuclear conflict.

As U.S. President George W. Bush musters support to oust Saddam Hussein, former members of the Kennedy administration are heading to Cuba to revisit that earlier standoff.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former special aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. are among those expected at the conference, aimed at showing a lesser known view of the crisis: Cuba's. Castro is also expected.

In his ABC interview with Barbara Walters, Castro said his country did not agree to accept the missiles out of fear, and "we would have rather not had them in order to preserve the prestige" of Cuba. He also said Cuban officials did not like being considered "the Soviet base in the Caribbean."

Still, Castro indicated respect for Khrushchev and his support of the Cuban Revolution.

"Even though Nikita was a bold man, he was a courageous man ... and I can make criticisms of him ... of the mistakes he made. I have reflected a lot on that," Castro said. But misleading Kennedy, the Cuban president said, "was his main ... flaw."

The crisis, marking the Cold War's tensest moments, was defused when Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.

Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez, an organizer of the conference, was an army commander when Castro put 400,000 soldiers in position to repel a possible invasion of the island.

As Kennedy's words clicked off the teletype machine at military headquarters Oct. 22, 1962, Fernandez knew the Americans meant business.

"I had the impression that war was probable," recalled the 79-year-old Fernandez. "I was also preparing myself to die, all the while hoping that I would stay alive."

Kennedy's message to the United States and the world was direct.

"Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missiles is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," Kennedy said in his speech to the American people. "The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere."

Jose Goitia / AP

Fernandez has invited key players to revisit the missile crisis at a conference in Cuba.

Earlier that day, about 2,500 relatives of U.S. forces stationed at Guantanamo Bay were given 15 minutes to pack one bag each before being evacuated.

"I was ordered to destroy papers and help move ourselves elsewhere because obviously the ministry [of defense] would be a target," Fernandez said in an interview this week.

Most Americans invited to the conference, including McNamara, Schlesinger, former Kennedy speechwriters Richard Goodwin and Ted Sorensen and former CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, will arrive Thursday.

Also attending are several Kennedy family members, including Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy, the president's brother who was attorney general and a key player in the crisis.

Along with the gathering, Cuba will release some formerly classified documents about the days known here as the Crisis of October.

Fernandez said he hoped new lessons would emerge for politicians, "to never again take the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe."