Fifteenth in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
We know now that the Kremlin approved Khrushchev’s plan to establish a strategic missile base in Cuba in late May of 1962. But why did Khrushchev come up with this plan and when and where did he do so?
Why Khrushchev Turned to a Nuclear Solution
Khrushchev reached his decision to deploy strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba because he thought their presence would solve, in one stroke, seven very pressing problems:
- A Soviet missile base in Cuba would end the USSR’s humiliating nuclear inferiority to the U.S.: once that base was operational, the USSR would have the capacity to strike directly into the American homeland.
- This nuclear solution would be relatively cheap and quick: in a few months Soviet missiles would be transported from Russia to Cuba where they would, overnight, become the equivalent of the intercontinental missiles the USSR would not have for another ten years.
- When that base was operational, the USSR could deter both an American first strike against the USSR and an American invasion of Cuba.
- Castro’s safety from an American invasion would stunningly strengthen the USSR’s position as a rival to the United States—right on the Americans’ doorstep.
- Missiles in Cuba would make the U.S. and NATO think twice before trying to station any more missiles in Europe, or use the ones they already had in place—like those hated Jupiters in Turkey.
- The USSR’s new capacity to strike the U.S. homeland would help the Kremlin leverage the Allies out of Berlin.
- If the United States seized the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the missiles could not be turned against the Russian homeland.
All these positive factors would immensely strengthen the USSR’s leadership of the world communist movement and thus Khrushchev’s standing within the Presidium.
When and How Khrushchev reached his Nuclear Solution
According to one source, Khrushchev conceived the idea in April when Defense Marshall Rodion Malinovsky told him in April that the USSR’s ICBM would not be ready for another ten years.
Other sources believe that Khrushchev’s a-hah! moment came when he realized that Cuba could be to the USSR what Turkey was to NATO—a launching site for strategic missiles aimed at the enemy’s heartland.
Sergo Mikoyan, son of Anastas Mikoyan, Deputy Soviet Premier and a close associate of Khruschev’s, places Khrushchev’s decision at the end of April 1962, but in Moscow. Sergo has Khrushhchev first discussing the idea with his father alone, then “without note-takers among a small group.”
Khrushchev himself says that he conceived the idea on a trip to Bulgaria in mid-May.
The Author’s View of What Happened
I believe that it was indeed April 1962 when Khrushchev began thinking that nuclear missiles could help him solve his many problems, including that big Caribbean one. After some preliminary and highly secret discussions, he spent the first three weeks of May mulling over this exciting but potentially dangerous plan. Then in late May he went to the Presidium.
Déja Vu All Over Again
But there’s something else about Khrushchev’s nuclear decision we must know. It was an exciting decision, yes; a potentially dangerous decision, certainly. But was it an innovative solution? A creative solution? No. Khrushchev had deployed nuclear missiles outside the USSR once before.
I’ll explain in the next post—coming in a few days.
As far as I can tell, no unimpeachable documentary evidence about Khrushchev’s decision-making steps has yet emerged from Russian archives. We have only anecdotes to go by.
For Khrushchev’s version of when he thought of sending strategic missiles to Cuba, see his Khrushchev Remembers: the Last Testament. Translated and edited by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1974. Remember, please, that memoirs from any source are notoriously unreliable!
The Malinovsky-Khrushchev-ICBM story comes from Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble.” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 171. The authors cite a 1995 work by General Dmitiri Volkogonov whose English title is Seven Leaders.
The Khrushchev-Malinovsky-Jupiters account comes from Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (revised edition). Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1989, 12. In FN 19 on p. 12 Garthoff says a Party Central Committee member told him this version of the decision appeared in a January 1963 letter from Khrushchev to Castro “explaining more fully the decision to deploy the missiles in Cuba.”
(Some sources report that the Jupiter missile was so flawed that there was considerable doubt that it would launch at all if fired; or, if it did launch, considerable doubt about where it would go.)
Sergo Mikoyan’s account is printed in full in James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Examine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989, 238ff. Sergo delivered his account during a 1987 Soviet-American conference on the Crisis in Cambridge, Mass.
Alekseev’s recall to Moscow and his fears for himself are recounted in “One Hell of a Gamble,” 172ff.
I have also consulted these sources:
- James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Examine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989, 238ff.
- Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, 382ff.
- James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002, 490.