It was early on a Saturday evening, 27th October 1962, and I was out in London with my future wife, going to the theatre. We wondered if we would be alive the next day, if any Londoners would be alive the next day. US warships were tracking Soviet submarines and blockading ships carrying missiles to Cuba. For the first – and only - time during the Cold War the US Strategic Air Command was on DEFCON 2, one level below full readiness for a first strike nuclear attack. This meant that at any one time almost 200 of the US 1,500 nuclear bombers were airborne.
Khrushchev and the Kennedy brothers’ willingness to face down their military establishments, and pure luck, got the world through the next 24 hours and into what Donald Trump in his coarse business language would call a deal. But would Trump have pulled it off? I doubt it very much.
Are there lessons to be drawn from the Cuban missile crisis as we approach a critical period in discussions with Kim Jong-un, led by a man who is trying to scrap an effective agreement with Iran that halts their development of nuclear weapons? Daniel Ellsberg’s insider account of just how near the world came to a nuclear holocaust in October 1962 in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner paints a deeply disturbing picture.
The first lesson is the danger of ignorance. It is terrifying how little the potential belligerents knew about their opponents. On the American side, the Kennedys had no idea that the Soviets had already placed over 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba to use against the invasion for which the US military chiefs were seeking a pretext. Nor did President Kennedy know that in the event of communications with Moscow being severed local Soviet commanders were authorised to fire their nuclear weapons. (Khruschev withdrew the authorisation on 22 October). Military estimates of Soviet troops in Cuba were wildly wrong: there were 42,000 Soviet troops on the island not the 7,000 assumed by the US.
On the Russian side, it later turned out, Khruschev had given strict orders to hold fire on all US reconnaissance flights. He had not imagined that under threat of imminent invasion, on 27 October, Castro would direct anti-aircraft fire on US reconnaissance planes nor that a Soviet commander would follow suit and shoot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane with a SAM. This, in turn, was seen in Washington as a major escalation and resulted in an ultimatum that any further attacks - which Khruschev now realised he could not control - would result immediately in US counter-attacks on all missile sites followed by the feared invasion of Cuba. The same would occur if, within 48 hours, the Soviets did not start removing the missiles.
The second lesson is the danger of poor internal and external communication. Within each belligerent state, communications between politicians, military and scientists, were persistently unreliable due to secrecy and systems failures. The US President and Defence Secretary were kept in the dark by scientists and the military about vital details of nuclear procedures. The public were never allowed to know to what degree Execute orders were delegated. There were multiple fingers on the nuclear button precisely because for a variety of reasons communications from above could fail. We can guess that similar conditions prevailed within the secretive Soviet State.
The communications failure that could have resulted in Doomsday took place at 5pm on the afternoon of 27 October. The night before, Defence Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed their Soviet counterparts that US vessels would use small explosive charges, hand-grenades rather than regular depth-charges, to indicate that a tracked Soviet submarine should surface. The message never got through to the submarine commanders.
Captain Valentin Griegorievich Savitsky, not far from Cuba in Caribbean waters and out of contact with Moscow, was commanding a B-29 hunter-killer submarine, intended for use in colder climates. Its ventilator system was broken and crew were passing out with heat with carbon dioxide levels well over safe limits. Hemmed in by US vessels, under stress, Savitsky interpreted a series of small explosions on the hull as the beginning of an attack. His deputy political officer agreed with his order to retaliate against the vessels of the US fleet. A nuclear torpedo which had the power of a Hiroshima blast was readied. Together Captain Savitsky supported by Ivan Maslennikov, the political officer aboard the submarine, had the authority to launch. But, by chance, an equally senior officer, Vasili Arkhipov, chief of staff of the brigade, was on board. Acting as second captain, he cited the lack of authorisation from Moscow to countermand the captain. They surfaced.
The danger of poor communications and ignorance in the 1960s persisted and persists. I have always found it odd that our survival during the Cold War and peace in Europe is attributed to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Subsequent detailed analysis of the Cuban missile crisis reveals the reality as a reckless gamble with the future of humanity. For many years no-one realised that the use of hydrogen fusion H-bombs in a general nuclear war, a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, would create a nuclear Winter that would most likely starve all higher life on the planet to death. Secret calculations of the death toll from the explosions went as high as the low billions but the aftermath was spectacularly miscalculated. Despite satellite intelligence, such dangers persist today and will be aggravated by the possibilities of cyber-disruption of communications at critical moments.
At the last count, the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been signed by 122 member states, including the Holy See. It declared both possession and use of nuclear weapons immoral and illegal. Or as former President of Iran, Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami once said very forcefully to me at Lambeth Palace: “haram for both”. The USA, UK and France have dismissed the Treaty out of hand on the grounds that deterrence ensures global security and the treaty did not recognise reality.
In a speech to the new body in Rome for Promoting Integral Development, Pope Francis, by way of reply, described deterrence as providing “a false sense of security”. Nuclear weapons, he said “cannot constitute the basis for peaceful co-existence between members of the human family”. History, we can see from Ellsberg’s book, is on the Pope’s side. And on the side of CND who for years advocated unilateral implementation of this teaching. President Trump should apply this teaching, by reducing his own, vast, planet-destroying arsenal of nuclear weapons. Denuclearisation is not only an imperative for Iran and North Korea.
There are worse negotiating strategies.