CONTENT WARNING: the following article contains mild language and discussions of nuclear war.
Previously on Epik Fails of History – In Part One (Cold War on Defrost), I explained how the stage was set for a nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union with Castro in the middle. In Part Two (A Bay of Pigs?), we dove into the (failed) American invasion of Cuba that nearly started World War III.
This time, it’s personal. Well sorta…
13 DAYS: COUNTDOWN TO DOOMSDAY
October 15, 1962 – A U-2 spy plane takes photos of a construction site in Cuba, revealing multiple SS-4 nuclear missiles, each with at least an 8 megaton yield.
October 16, 1962 – President Kennedy is appraised of the situation over breakfast…
Over the next few days, Kennedy met with Ex-Comm, dozens of high ranking military personnel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to figure out what the fuck to do about the Soviet missiles – IN Cuba!
Luckily JFK went with the best option: Don’t Panic.
And then he decided to blockade Cuba.
For the record: we are all here today because Kennedy decided to NOT attack Cuba in that moment, because as it turns out those missiles were ready to go at the drop of a hat.
October 22, 1962 – Kennedy addresses the nation: “It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
October 24, 1962 – A blockade of American ships surround Cuba and move to intercept the approach of Soviet vessels. The Soviet ships slow to a stop and the two most powerful naval forces on the planet find themselves in a staring contest. The American Strategic Air Command was upgraded to DEFCON 2 – the second highest readiness level (despite what many an action movie would have you know).
October 25, 1962 – A US Airbase, Volk Field, in Wisconsin is notified of an intruder alert and accidentally sets off the wrong alarm: the one that signals an imminent nuclear attack! F-106 A Delta Dart interceptors readied for take-off, this was not a drill. Luckily (for the sake of the entire world and future of the human race) someone was able to flag down the nuke-toting bombers on the runway before they took off. Oh and that ‘intruder’ alert was set off by a very confused bear.
That’s right, Winnie the Pooh almost caused a nuclear holocaust.
October 26, 1962 – A Titan II test rocket is launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force base out across the Pacific Ocean… you know, towards the general direction of Russia. For some absurd reason, no one thought this might be a terrible idea considering the circumstances. If that’s not bad enough, there was ANOTHER test in Cape Canaveral, Florida later that day. I repeat, Florida – you know, that state that’s only 90 miles away from Cuba…
It’s almost as though the US were begging the Soviets to try something. Nuclear weapons were armed and ready on both sides. Russian embassies began burning classified documents. The Cubans started digging trenches. American families silently huddled in front of their black and white TV’s and old-timey radios, fearing the worst.
It started to look as though nuclear war would become unavoidable.
October 27, 1962 –
An apocalyptic payload was at the ready on the morning of October 27th, 1962.
White House politicians met in secret with the Kremlin in an attempt to avert the nigh extinction level event, while American and Russian forces were ready to press the big red button at a moment’s notice. As if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did… because of course they did.
American Captain Charles Maultsby, a U-2 pilot running a reconnaissance mission over the North Pole, accidentally strayed into Soviet Airspace at literally the worst possible moment. Russian MiG fighters were scrambled to intercept, which prompted two F-102 Delta Daggers to launch from Alaska. The nuclear-armed pilots narrowly avoided a dog fight and guided Captain Maultsby back to base.
Off the coast of Cuba – an American Destroyer, the USS Beale, detected a Soviet submarine: B-59. The sub had gotten dangerously close to the blockade, so the crew of the Beale decided to send some warning shots by dropping some ‘practice’ depth charges in an effort to force them to surface. What they didn’t know, was that the Russian sub was armed with a nuclear warhead…
4 Foxtrot-class Soviet submarines, each with nuclear-tipped warheads were positioned around Cuba, awaiting orders. Their last communication from Moscow was to hold position and fire if they were attacked. These subs were more effective in colder waters and began to malfunction – the subs’ AC unit’s failed and the temperature began to rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit! To make matters soooo much worse, they were running out of food and water, and they needed to surface in order to recharge their batteries. Their only connection to the outside world was a civilian radio broadcast from Miami and the only thing they could do was wait around to see if they were at war.
The US commanders at the time had no idea they were dropping signaling charges onto a nuclear-armed sub with a starving, dehydrated, overheated and stressed out crew – with orders to fire if provoked!
Meanwhile, the submarine crew aboard the B59 had no way of knowing that the charges were warning shots and assumed the worst. The oxygen supply was running low, the temperature was rising and they were running out of power. Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered the preparation of their 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo and targeted the USS Randolf. The Captain said, “We will not die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy!” If launched, the torpedo would instantly vaporize the US Destroyer and set off never-ending chain of radioactive dominoes, from London to Moscow.
The world was one decision away from total destruction.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a senior Russian officer aboard the B-59 was one of three who had to come to a decision and was the only one in the control room that chose not to fire the first shot of a Doomsday-inducing war. Arkhipov instead decided to surface,
recharge their batteries, and figure out next steps.
It is because of him that you are alive today.
Meanwhile, back in Cuba – Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down by Soviet forces, becoming the only casualty of the entire conflict. Nuclear war was averted that day and the world wouldn’t know just how close we came to annihilation until decades later…
Behind the scenes – Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy (JFK’s brother) reached out to make an offer with Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to the US. In exchange for the removal of the missiles in Cuba, Robert offered two conditions:
1. The United States would promise not to try and invade Cuba yet again.
2. The US would (secretly) remove the Jupiter Missiles from Turkey
<Insert huge sigh of relief>.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was probably the closest the world has ever come to a Fallout / Mad Max-esque dystopian wasteland, but the important thing to note is that the world never ended. That said, it wasn’t really a happy ending either. The Cold War kept going for another thirty years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union…
Unfortunately, Castro never gave up his power and stifled the freedom of the Cuban people under his strict regime, leading many refugees to flee to Florida. Relations between the US and Cuba have finally started to mend after all these years, with President Obama being the first American President to visit in 88 years.
Despite all the progress that’s been made since this near-catastrophic face-off, we’re not quite out of the woods yet, especially with egotistical xenophobic crazy guys with bad hair, like
Trump Kim Jong-un in the world.
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—– More articles on Historic Failure:
“History Uncovered: Bay of Pigs – Declassified” – History Documentary