"Any Fool Can Start a War"
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, good luck substituted for good information and good judgment, hardly a model of policymaking to celebrate or recommend.

The intelligence the CIA provided was flawed and inadequate. Not only had the agency missed the deployment of the medium- and intermediate-range missiles until it was almost too late to respond, but it was also unaware that the Soviets had on hand 35 LUNA battlefield nuclear weapons that would have devastated any American landing force. The CIA's best estimate of the number of Soviet ground forces in Cuba was 10,000–12,000; in fact, more than 40,000 battle ready Soviet combat troops were prepared to confront a U.S. assault.


If the President had approved an attack on Cuba, Guantanamo Bay's reinforced garrison was primed to participate. But the Soviets had moved a battlefield nuclear weapon into range of the base with the intention of destroying it before a single marine could pass through the gate.

Other near disasters, oversights, and accidents added to the chaos within the crisis. Several anti-Castro groups, operating under a CIA program (code-named Mongoose) directed by Robert Kennedy, went about their sabotage activities because no one had thought to cancel their mission, which could have been mistaken for assault preparations.

Authorities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California were seemingly oblivious to the crisis. They test-fired a missile without first contacting the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, no one dealing with the crisis appeared to be aware of the scheduled test to assess whether the Soviets might misinterpret the launch as a hostile action.

And, most extraordinarily, the commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen. Thomas Powers, on his own authority, without informing the President or any national security staff member, raised the Defense Condition (DefCon) level to 2—one level short of war—and broadcast his order "in the clear" (uncoded). Obviously trying to intimidate the Soviets, his behavior was confirmation of Gen. Curtis LeMay's troubling assessment that Powers was mentally "not stable."

Also on Saturday morning, October 27, the tensest day of the crisis, a U-2 pilot was killed when his plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air (SAM) missile. All of the ExComm's members assumed that the order to fire had been issued by Moscow; in fact, the decision was unauthorized and had been taken by the local commander.

The response of the Joint Chiefs was to pressure the President to bomb the offending SAM site, but he had the good sense and will to reject their insistent requests. And, as if following an improbable Hollywood script, that very afternoon, a U-2 flying on an air-sampling mission to the Arctic circle—which also should have been scrubbed—accidentally overflew Soviet territory when the pilot made a navigation error. The Soviets could have interpreted that reconnaissance flight as anticipating an attack.

But the most dangerous moment of the crisis occurred late on Saturday afternoon, and the United States did not learn about it until almost 40 years later.

Four Soviet submarines were being tracked in the area of the blockade line, but no American knew that each had a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo aboard that their captains were authorized to use. At about 5 o'clock, the commander of submarine B-59, Capt. V. G. Savitskii, convinced that he was being attacked by the practice depth charges and grenades that U.S. Navy anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces were dropping to force him to surface, loaded his nuclear torpedo and came within seconds of launching it at his antagonists. Had he fired that weapon, there is no doubt about the devastating consequences that would have followed.

The plan was bizarre, vintage Khrushchev, a wild gamble that promised a huge payoff for both his domestic and foreign policies. He had thought of it himself, and so he pushed it through the presidium, manipulating the doubters with alternating displays of reasonableness and combative confidence.

He began by enlisting the support of the equally facile enthusiast, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, his minister of defense. A military mind with no political sense, Malinovsky told a visiting Cuban delegation: "There will be no big reaction from the U.S. side. And if there is a problem, we will send the Baltic Fleet."

Khrushchev had become consumed after the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion with the need to protect Castro's communist government.

"I was sure that a new attack was inevitable, and that it was only a question of time," he wrote in his memoirs. Moreover, there was the reputation of the Soviet Union to consider.

"If we lost Cuba," Khrushchev concluded, "our prestige in Latin American countries would diminish. And how would everybody look at us afterwards? The Soviet Union is such a great country but could not do anything except make empty proclamations, threats and speeches in the U.N."

the central focus of historians' efforts to understand the process that led to its peaceful resolution