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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Foes Exchange Notes on 1962 Missile Crisis

SAN CRISTOBAL, Cuba -- Dino Brugioni had spent decades poring over every detail from the spy plane photographs of Soviet missiles whose discovery here, 40 years ago last weekend, brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear holocaust. But Sunday the former Central Intelligence Agency officer learned a few things that had eluded even his careful eye, thanks to none other than General Anatoly Gribkov, who was the Soviet officer who supervised the construction of missile bases in Cuba in 1962.

More like old colleagues than former adversaries, the two men stood this morning in front of an abandoned bunker, discussing roads, cables and missile locations. Their exchanges contained more shop talk than sharp words.

"I got a little more detail than I could see," said Brugioni, who during the Cuban missile crisis had prepared briefings based on spy plane photos. "I'm glad I came to talk with my Russian and Cuban counterparts. It's been 40 years. I've forgiven."

Last weekend, presidential advisers and military officers from all sides who took part in the Cold War's tensest episode gathered in Cuba to discuss issues arising from those 13 days, including intelligence failures and independent arms inspections. Those themes have taken on special resonance at a time when U.S. officials are considering the possibility of pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein to ensure that Iraq does not develop or use weapons of mass destruction.

Participants at the conference did not explicitly draw comparisons. But they did say President John F. Kennedy's peaceful resolution of the crisis held a powerful lesson. "I hope that 10 years from now the Cuban missile crisis will be looked upon as a learning period for the world in understanding the risk to the human race in continuing huge nuclear forces," Robert McNamara, who was defense secretary at the time, said in an interview Friday. "What happened in Cuba is very commonplace. Military operations are much more complex than civilian ones. The variables are greater."

McNamara, who headed the U.S. delegation at the conference, said recent examples of civilian and "friendly fire" casualties in Afghanistan underscored the hazards of warfare, even when it is confined to conventional weapons.

Cuban President Fidel Castro attended most of the closed-door sessions in Havana and offered long commentaries. According to those present at a meeting Friday, Castro questioned a retired Soviet military officer at length about the size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal compared with that of the United States and the numbers and location of warheads on the island. "Castro didn't know," said Thomas Blanton, the National Security Archive's executive director. "But he said that they had a sense that the Soviet Union was first with Sputnik, Yury A. Gagarin and having the largest bomb." He added that "they assumed the Soviet Union was at least equal" to the United States militarily.

The Americans viewed the Soviet missiles, evidence of which Kennedy received on Oct. 16, 1962, as a provocation. But Cuban officials placed the crisis in the context of the threat of an American military invasion, mindful of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961. They had also worried about Cuban exiles backed by the United States in the destabilization campaign known as Operation Mongoose.

"The United States had already developed subversive activities including assassination plans against the leaders of the revolution," said Esteban Morales, a researcher at the University of Havana.

Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's counsel and chief speechwriter, said Kennedy had had no intention of staging a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Rather, the goal was to isolate Cuba and prevent it from becoming a Soviet military outpost.

Nonetheless, at the conference Sorensen apologized to the Cubans for the sabotage campaign. "I represent nobody but myself," he said. "I just thought an apology was due."

Kennedy's military advisers were urging him to prepare for an invasion, however, once the United States had responded to the detection of the missiles by establishing a naval and air blockade to prevent Soviet ships from reaching Cuba. On Oct. 27, according to documents released at the conference, events were spinning out of control. A U.S. surveillance plane was shot down over Cuba, another wandered into Soviet airspace, and an American destroyer was dropping depth charges to force to the surface a Soviet submarine that had approached the U.S. blockade line.

The commander of the Soviet submarine, which had a nuclear-tipped torpedo, "summoned the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo and ordered him to assemble it to battle readiness," according to a Soviet document made available at the conference.

"Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here," the commander was quoted as saying. "We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy!"

According to the document, the Soviet commander relented after conferring with other officers.

While the Americans were able to get the Soviets to agree on Oct. 28 to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, they were unable to get the Soviets to persuade the Cubans to allow inspections.

Soviet documents portray Castro as having been angered by the Soviet suggestion of inspections as infringing on Cuba's sovereignty. "Recent events have considerably influenced the moral spirit of our people," Castro was quoted as saying to Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet first deputy prime minister, who was in Havana in early November 1962. "They were regarded as a retreat at the very moment when every nerve of our country had been strained."

Mikoyan responded that developments were moving so rapidly that a decision had to be made quickly. "At the moment the main objective consisted of preventing an attack," the envoy wrote in the document. "We thought the Cuban comrades would understand us."

But a Nov. 16 letter to Mikoyan from Nikita Khrushchev revealed Soviet impatience with the Cubans' rejection of inspections and their pledge to shoot down U.S. spy planes. "Cuba, which now does not even want to consult with us, wants to practically drag us behind it by a leash, and wants to pull us into a war with the Americans by its actions," Khrushchev wrote. "We cannot and will not agree to this."

Cuba never did allow inspections, but by Nov. 20, the United States lifted its naval blockade. "In a sense, that is the message of this entire conference," Sorensen said in an interview. "It is very clear that the world was on the brink of a nuclear war, so close. Yet it was also very clear that not one of the three governments involved wanted a war."

In April 1963, Castro traveled to the Soviet Union and was promised economic and security assistance.

Tucked in the briefing books prepared for the conference is a recounting of a conversation between Mikoyan and Ernesto Guevara, a hero of the Cuban revolution who was known as Che and a confidante of Castro. "We will always be with you despite all the difficulties," Mikoyan told Guevara.

"To the last day?" Guevara asked.

"Yes, let our enemies die," Mikoyan replied. "We must live and live. Live like Communists. We are convinced of our victory."