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Saturday, 19 October, 2002, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Back from the brink of war
Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev
Forty years have passed since the Cuban missile crisis

Osvaldo Fernandez knew instinctively that there was something odd - something sensitive - about the assignment he was given in September 1962. Osvaldo - Captain Fernandez - was a 26-year-old motor cycle rider in the Cuban army.

His task was to go to Mariel port outside Havana and, on his bike, lead a convoy of vehicles that would be offloaded from cargo ships, into the interior of the island, to a village called Santa Cruz de los Pinos.

A missile that is on display in Havana, Cuba
More than 30 nuclear warheads were deployed in Cuba
He would be met, he was told, by a fraternal delegation from Cuba's new ally, the Soviet Union. These men would be agricultural advisers and they would be bringing some farming equipment from Russia.

Why then, Osvaldo wondered, do they have to disembark from their ships at midnight, and make sure their journey to Santa Cruz was completed before dawn?

Where his route passed through towns and villages the Cuban Army had lined the roads to make sure that no-one came out of their houses to take a photograph of the extraordinary convoy of enormous trucks.

The earth shook with the movement, and Osvaldo saw people opening their shutters an inch or two to stare.

"I went home to my mother's house," Osvaldo told me 40 years later, when I met him in Havana, "and she asked me who those people were who'd just arrived in Cuba."

"'They're farmers, Mother' I told her. 'OK? Farmers. Now don't ask any more. They're farmers'."


On 4 October, Osvaldo escorted a convoy of refrigerated trucks. He didn't know that they contained 36 nuclear warheads.

Cuban missile silo
The warheads were deployed in a silo West of Havana
40 years on Osvaldo - now 66 - strides ahead with the vigour of a man half his age. He's off down a rutted track of vivid red mud and earth that slices between two grassy meadows. The sun is high and punishing and the thick tropical air sits on you like a heavy wet blanket.

I wonder how it must have been for the 40,000 Soviet troops who landed here four decades ago - more used to the seven-month winters of Moscow and Leningrad and the great rolling steppe land of Southern Russia and the unending frozen wastes of Siberia.

I have seen the photographs of the young men from another age sweltering in their dark coloured woollen suits, their faces florid with the unaccustomed sun.

Osvaldo is heading into the undergrowth now, hacking his way through thick tropical vegetation and calling on me to follow. Then we see it, rising from the dense greenery - a vast steel reinforced concrete circle, squat and firm in the ground.

"It's the launch pad," says Osvaldo. "This is where they were going to fire from. And over there, the silos where the missiles were stored."

Osvaldo points to a thickly wooded mountain to the north. "On the other side of those hills," he says, "You know what's there? Miami, Florida. The enemy. 150km away. That's how close".

Old friends

We found Osvaldo through a contact in Moscow. Anatoly Burlov was the Soviet Union's chief nuclear missile engineer in Santa Cruz de los Pinos. He supervised the building of a small garrison town on what had been open farmland at Santa Cruz. "The location was perfect," he told me.

"There was plenty of open land, good roads, a river for fresh water and for the troops to bathe, and, of course, the mountain to provide cover from the north. We built barracks for 3,000 troops in a few weeks, an electricity generating plant, and of course the silos and the launch pad".

Osvaldo and Anatoly are the same age roughly. They became firm friends in 1962 and have never lost touch.

But the mountain didn't provide much cover. American U2 spy planes spotted the missiles in the middle of October. By the 15th President John F Kennedy had convened a war cabinet - the committee known as Ex Comm.

War cabinet

On 18 October he broke off a sitting of Ex Comm to attend a meeting in the Oval Office that has entered into Cold War legend.

By coincidence, the veteran Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was due to pay him a routine visit.

Popular myth has distorted the course of what followed. It has come down to us as a tough talking no-nonsense president confronting the embarrassed Gromyko with incontrovertible evidence in the form of aerial photographs and demanding an immediate withdrawal.

President Kennedy
Kennedy demanded the withdrawal of the missiles
Some accounts have Gromyko lying - denying all knowledge of the missiles, even though it was clear that he knew.

What really happened was quite different and in many ways much more dramatic and more sinister. In Moscow I met a man who was in the Oval Office throughout that famous encounter and who is - since the fall of Communism - now free to tell all.

Viktor Sukhodrev was Gromyko's personal translator. He speaks English with a North London accent. As a child, his parents worked at the Soviet Trade Mission in London, during the war years. Viktor attended local schools.

He has been well rewarded for his life time service to the Soviet foreign ministry. We met in his spacious dacha outside Moscow.

"I had the impression that Kennedy was rather tense" he said. "He sat in his usual seat in the Oval Office, which was a rocking chair. Beside him was a low table with drawer in it.

For the next six days the human race was to walk on the edge of the nuclear abyss - learning only much later precisely how close it had come to catastrophe

"What none of us, including Gromyko, knew at the time was that in that drawer were the aerial photographs of the missiles. Kennedy had the proof. But at no time in the meeting was the word missile even mentioned.

"Kennedy just put it to Gromyko that the Soviet Union appeared to be acting in a hostile manner in Cuba and Gromyko said no - the assistance Moscow was giving to Fidel Castro was all of a defensive nature to deter a US attack on Cuba.

"So Gromyko didn't lie. Kennedy did not show us the pictures. Whether Gromyko would have lied if he'd been confronted with the evidence we shall never know, because Gromyko as you know is no longer among the living".

Withdrawal demanded

Four days later - on the 22 October - Kennedy made his famous broadcast, imposing a blockade around Cuba and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the missiles.

He warned of a war in which even the fruits of victory would - as he put it - be ashes in our mouths. The world held its breath. For the next six days the human race was to walk on the edge of the nuclear abyss - learning only much later precisely how close it had come to catastrophe.

Nikita Khrushchev was initially bullish about the Kennedy threat. He didn't know how much pressure the young president was under from the American military to launch an invasion of the island.

The military argument was this:

  • The Soviet missiles were already in place
  • US intelligence said they would be operational within days, by 25 or 26 October at the latest
  • An invasion was therefore imperative before that happens - in other words, the following day or the day after

The US military was assembling an invasion force of a quarter of a million men.

Washington knew that there were intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of striking any part of the continental US.

What they didn't know was that the Soviets also had tactical nuclear weapons - missiles called Luna Rockets - with a range of something like 50 km (30 miles).

These could be used to attack an invading US force, and that, furthermore, Soviet military doctrine was for so-called "first use".

In other words, in the event of a US invasion Khrushchev was ready - and his generals were authorised - to go nuclear first.

Missiles ready

At Santa Cruz de los Pinos, Anatoly Burlov was now working flat out. By the 25 October - three days after the Kennedy broadcast - his missiles were ready.

"We stored them horizontally," he told me.

"If we had received the order to use them we would have transported the warhead from its storage silo, loaded it into the nose of the rocket, lifted the rocket into its vertical position, fuelled it, and fired it.

"The whole operation would have taken perhaps five hours from the moment the order was given to its launch. We were waiting."

But that same day, in the Kremlin, Khrushchev, eyeball-to-eyeball with the West for three days, blinked. He had been sleeping on a couch in a little room beside his office, his suit crumpled and worn. The story of why he blinked is extraordinary and chilling.

Nikita Khrushchev
Khrushchev eventually agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba
Despite the tensions of the age and the intensity of American paranoia about communist expansionism, Soviet intelligence gathering in North America was at the time underdeveloped to the point of amateurishness.

KGB agents had no idea what was happening in the Kennedy White House.

Late the night before - 24 October - the Washington correspondent for the Russian news agency Tass called in at the National Press Club for a drink just as the bar was closing. His name was Anatoly Gorsky, and he was also a KGB agent.

The barman in the tap room was an emigre Russian called Johnny Prokov. Prokov told the spy Gorsky that a couple of hours earlier he had overheard an intense and private conversation between two journalists from the New York Herald Tribune, Warren Rodgers and Robert Donovan.

Donovan, it seemed was making plans to fly to Miami that very night to become one of a small group of correspondents accredited to join the US invasion force that was to attack Cuba the next day.

Message to Moscow

The spy Gorsky forgot about his nightcap and went straight back to the Soviet embassy and messaged Moscow. Moscow is eight hours ahead of Washington. It was already day break.

News of this chance encounter was sent straight to Khrushchev's desk. Oleg Troyanovsky is an old man now but his memory of what followed is clear.

He was one of Khrushchev's personal assistants and English translators.

"By now," Troyanovsky told me "he realised that this was a pretty dirty business he had gotten himself into".

Was he alarmed? I asked him. "Oh I should say so, I should say so."

It took three more days of tense trans-Atlantic radio traffic for the two sides to find ladders to climb down.

Only in 1992 - after the fall of Communism - did the Americans learn about the tactical missiles known as Luna, and did the Herald Tribune reporter Warren Rodgers learn about his accidental role in averting nuclear war.

The BBC's Chris Lowe
"The wider world still knew nothing about the missile build-up"
See also:

12 Oct 02 | Americas
17 Jan 02 | Americas
25 Mar 01 | Americas
10 Apr 01 | Entertainment
27 Jul 02 | Americas
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