To what extent is this account of the Cuban missile crisis accurate?

It’s one of those Adam ruins whatever videos.
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Grossly oversimplified, to the point of misleading.

True, the U.S. had missiles in Turkey. However, that was because the U.S.S.R had intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the U.S. didn’t have at that point. And the U.S.S.R had ICBMs to respond to the U.S. having long-range bombers, which was a response to the U.S.S.R. having massive troops prepared to invade western Europe (see also, the Berlin Wall), etc., etc.

Whether the blockade was actually a quarantine and thus an act of war is the kind of thing diplomats are paid to haggle about. In this case both sides felt it advisable to pretend it kinda sorta wasn’t really technically an act of war, and that was good enough for them.

Adam also completely ignores that Fidel Castro wanted the missiles there (see also, Bay of Pigs) - in fact, he wanted control over the missiles, which the Soviets flat-out refused.

But yeah, there were a lot of back channel discussions. And the whole crisis played out in less than two weeks, so both sides were acting without any short-term plan or long-range goal in place.

I thought those dated to the late '50s (Atlast, etc.?). Or are those too early/ineffective to count?

Well, I wouldn’t say that it was all JFK’s fault.

This was in the middle of the cold war. JFK didn’t just place missiles in Turkey no a whim. The Soviets had done things, and the U.S. had done things, back and forth and back and forth, and so on. In the latest round, JFK had embarrassed himself with the failed Bay of Pigs affair, and was starting to look weak. JFK also came off weak during the crisis in Berlin in 1961. All of this gave the Soviets a diplomatic advantage that they were quick to capitalize on. Remember, the cold war was less about fighting and more about posturing (hence, a cold war, and not a “hot” aka a shooting war). There is a certain amount of validity to the claim that the Soviets were winning the posturing part of the war at that point.

To prevent himself from continuing to come off as weak, JFK placed missiles in Turkey and Italy (Italy wasn’t mentioned in the video, but missiles went there too). With Bay of Pigs still fresh in everyone’s minds, Cuba wanted some better defenses to deter another potential invasion. The Soviets also wanted to strengthen Cuba since it was their ally and was physically close to the U.S. and also wanted a strong response to the missiles in Italy and Turkey. The Soviets happily responded to Castro’s request for better defenses by placing their own missiles in Cuba.

So, basically, it’s a lot more complex than that video makes it out to be.

There was this fear of the “missile gap”, and part of the platform that JFK got elected on in the first place involved strengthening the U.S. and eliminating the missile gap. In reality, there was no missile gap, so the video got that right. But the Soviets were telling everyone that they were cranking out missiles like sausages, and let’s face it, the Soviets weren’t exactly going to let someone from the U.S. go over to Russia and count how many missiles they actually had. So we know now for certain that the Soviets did not have anywhere near as many nukes and missiles as they claimed that they did, but we did not know that for certain at the time. It’s the old hindsight is 20/20 thing. Our best intel was counting a lot fewer missiles, but the Soviet leadership was saying that they had a lot more missiles. Do you believe them, or not? What if you are wrong and they really do have all of those missiles? They didn’t, but we had no way of knowing that.

So the fear of the missile gap was real, even if the missile gap itself wasn’t. I don’t think that you can discount it just because we now know that the Soviets had a lot fewer missiles than they were claiming that they had. I think that part of the video is a bit unfair, though it is basically true.

There were secret discussions behind the scenes to deescalate things. Kennedy couldn’t back down in public because he would come off as weak. We didn’t just pinky swear and then go behind the Soviet’s backs and tell the world anyway like the video says. Khrushchev felt like everything was spiraling out of control, so he agreed to whatever Kennedy was demanding at that moment, which was to publicly remove the missiles from Cuba. Part of the secret deal was that the U.S. would remove missiles from both Turkey and Italy, and Khrushchev knew that the U.S. missile removal would not be anywhere near as public as the Cuban missile removal. However, and this isn’t mentioned in the video, Khrushchev also knew that there were numerous other Soviet missiles in Cuba that the U.S. did not believe were there. Khrushchev was only removing the ones that the U.S. knew about and were complaining about.

In summary, most of the stuff in that video is basically true, but doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story.

The U.S. put missiles in Turkey in 1961. By then the Atlas missile had been developed but was notoriously unreliable. The Jupiter missiles in Turkey were supposed to be a short-term deterrent until the bigger, better missiles got their kinks worked out.

(Note that in one of those clips, the Atlas was carrying a Mercury capsule. That was the early, unmanned test that led Gus Grissom to say, “Are we really going to get on top of one of those things?” But at least the U.S. made public their space program failures.)

I’m not going to hunt down a cite right now, but it is now known that Kennedy’s top advisers told him Cuba’s missiles did not pose any new strategic threat. (They were a propaganda threat.) As engineer_comp_geek points out, the whole crisis was about Kennedy’s need to look strong, and not really about the missiles in Cuba.

A recent book by Daniel Ellsberg who was a former nuclear war planner sheds some new light on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book is “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner”.

Based on Ellsberg’s first-hand knowledge and involvement in last 50s and early 60s nuclear war planning, several of the statements in Cecil’s article now seem questionable. E.g:

“Even if things had gone off the rails, and the odd nuke popped off here and there, I think cooler heads would soon have prevailed”.

According to Ellsberg, the US policy – and sole operational plan – in that era was any opposition nuclear detonation would result in a massive total offensive nuclear strike on both the Soviet Union and China. There was no plan or control mechanism for a modulated response. It was all or nothing and the entire system was set up that way, mainly out of fear that command and control would be unreliable for a more nuanced response. In the book he relates his total shock when he discovered this back then, and especially the China aspect.

“A Russian submarine lost communication with the surface, assumed war had broken out, and almost launched its own nuclear torpedo.”

According to Ellsberg, the Russian submarine was being depth charged by American destroyers to try and chase it away or force it to surface. Unknown to the Americans the Russian sub was armed with a nuclear torpedo, they flooded the tube and made arrangements to fire it. Normally the Russian captain and the senior political officer must approve that (ironically as shown in Hunt for Red October), but on this particular sub there was a high-ranking chief of staff who had a 3rd key. The only reason the nuclear torpedo wasn’t fired is he disagreed and withheld his key, even though the other two voted to fire it.

That era was before modern digital Permissive Action Links (PALs) which restrict nuclear weapon release to validated presidential authority. Nuclear release authority in that era was delegated to lower echelon commanders, including Air Force Majors. It did not require a mad General as depicted in Dr. Strangelove. A perfectly sane Major in acting control of a base could unilaterally authorize use of tactical nuclear weapons. Ellsberg related a case where this could happen, e.g, an F-100 armed with armed tactical nukes crashes while taking off thereby partially detonating a weapon (safeties were poor then). The Major in command believes they are under nuclear attack and authorizes all planes already in the air to strike their targets. Global communications was very sketchy and unreliable in that era – it’s not like the Major could make a Satcom call to higher authority within a compressed time frame.

So it wasn’t a case of “cooler heads prevailing”, it was a case where communications, command and control was unreliable on both sides. To compensate, release authority was greatly delegated, which increased the chance of nuclear employment without national command authority, especially in a time of tension and escalated military posture.

The U2 shootdown over Cuba which greatly escalated the affair was directly against Khrushchev’s orders. According to Ellsberg that incident made Khrushchev doubt he had control over Cuban missiles, which in turn probably motivated him to help resolve the crisis.

“it’s unlikely either side would have launched its full arsenal”

As is now known, the US nuclear command procedure in that era was purely binary – launch everything or launch nothing. There was no command system to request a measured response. Later (after the early 1960s) that was developed and termed “flexible response”.

JFK had received intelligence briefings and knew there was no missile gap while he was campaigning on it. Nixon couldn’t call him on his lie without divulging secrets.

I clicked to post the following but someone beat me to it: :smack:

That is a very neat story. So neat that I wonder if it was fabricated. “Russian hero saves the world from American act of war” — Russia would have reason to invent such a story.

I believe that story came out during the meetings between the principal generals on both sides during the 90’s. At that time, end of the cold war, it seems less likely that such a story would have been made up. During those same sessions it was revealed to the US for the first time that the Soviet commander in Cuba had full authority and instructions to use his nuclear weapons as soon as a US invasion started. The US had concluded that wouldn’t happen in part because they planned to sever communications between Russia and Cuba in the first strike. The US generals realized that their advocacy of a Cuban invasion to prevent war would have inevitably started a nuclear war shocked them to their core. Oh, and Castro and his military were leaning as hard as they could on the Russian commander to launch a first strike. They figured they were dead anyway and wanted to take as many Americans as possible with them. The Cuban Missile Crisis was by far the closest the world has ever come to total destruction. I was old enough to know what the Civil Defense buckets that my father had picked up at the town hall were for (water storage). The idea that the US Government was distributing survival equipment to the general public at the height of the crisis highlights just how close war was. And absolutely, no one at the time thought for a moment that it would be a limited war.

I don’t see how that’s true. Missiles fired from Cuba had a much shorter range to travel than missiles fired from the Soviet Union. That meant that the United States had a much shorter time to react to an apparent attack.

Which made things more dangerous. There were false alarms with the warning system. If you’re being told there are signs of what appears to be incoming missiles and they’re going to arrive in twenty minutes, you have at least a little bit of time to assess the information and decide if this is a real attack. If you’re being told there are signs of what appears to be incoming missiles and they’re going to arrive in two minutes, you’re not going to have any time to stop and think before launching a counter-attack.

The American ships in this case were not using full-size depth charges (i.e. not actually firing to destroy the submarine) but rather “practice” charges.

It could be that the submariners would believe they were under actual attack, either not knowing about the practice charges or believing they were under actual attack rather than attack with “practice” charges.

That is correct. According to Ellsberg’s sources, one of the “practice” depth charges (which were still quite powerful) exploded directly on the hull of the Russian sub, damaging the depth controls and causing a leak. The Russian captain later said he thought they were really being bombed, so they made arrangements to fire their nuclear torpedo.

Some of this is discussed in this National Geographic article:

Several facets of this account were only revealed in the 1990s or later. In some cases there is debate over exactly what transpired on the Russian sub, but there is no doubt they had nuclear torpedoes and had unilateral capability to fire them. This is discussed at 1:00 into this lecture by James Hershberg, Professor of History at George Washington University:

Only in recent times was it revealed that – besides the Cuban missiles and the nuclear torpedoes – Russia had already stationed battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba which were to be used upon any sign of invasion. This was before Permissive Action Links which restricted nuclear weapon use to authenticated higher authority.

Given that knowledge (which was unknown to leaders in 1962) Kennedy’s statement that any nuclear weapon use from Cuba would result in a “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” is scary in hindsight. Yet his statement was not political posturing. Even though Kennedy and some advisors wanted a nuclear posture of “flexible response”, in 1962 the technology and command and control for this did not yet exist. The only strategic response available was massive retaliation. The entire system was set up that way, and Ellsberg goes into great detail on this in his book. He was specifically tasked by RAND Corporation to investigate and document nuclear command and control procedures in that era, although his findings were not revealed until his recent book.

This is false. The USSR never planned to invade western Europe. The Cold War was a Western creation. Obviously, this goes against what most in the West “know” to be the truth, but the Germans in 1939 were convinced they had been attacked by Poland, and of course the attack on the USSR was defensive too.

This article, The Soviet Union’s Insane Plan to Crush NATO in Battle, disagrees with you.

I’m not familiar with the magazine, but the citations are to good sources. There is a question of whether this was a serious plan or just a war plan for gaming purposes that’s not answered. It doesn’t seem like a sensible strategy and obviously never came close to happening, but the Cold War overflowed with nonsensical proposals by the hawks on both sides.

The Cold War was real, though you can apply many differing definitions about what it involved. I’d need to see some cites about the USSR never planning to invade western Europe. It would have been costly and the possibility of winning changed from year to year, so even under Stalin the odds were against such a move. But you seem to imply a much stronger case, that the Cold War was purely propaganda fiction by the U.S. I’m not buying that.

Try telling that to the people of Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc.

The USSR was paranoid since birth - for good reason. After the revolution, western powers sponsored rebels who tried to overthrow the Soviet. Germany exacted an expensive settlement in 1917 and then proceeded to violate an agreement and invade in 1941; although apparently everyone but Stalin saw this as inevitable. After the bloody cost of 1945 victory, they determined “never again” and took the necessary buffer states and built up arms. They were paranoid that a dominant USA might take advantage of their position to carry on into Russia.

the Americans it seems matched them paranoia for paranoia and the USSR’s obsessive secrecy did not help.

Also, JFK grew up playing little brother to Joe and had the chip on his shoulder that suggests he would rather blow up the world than lose a confrontation. Kruschev backed down to save the world despite the fact it cost him his job in the long run. I guess if the USA had obliterated Cuba would the USSR decide it was worth committing suicide over? Or, would retaliation consist of taking Turkey or Finland or some other tit-for-tat target?

OK, what the hell, I’ll put in a word for JFK.

The evidence that he purposefully lied for political advantage about the missile gap as a candidate in 1960 is mixed, at best. Many defense experts at the time thought it actually existed:

By October 1962, as President, JFK had warned the Soviets repeatedly, in public and in private, not to put nuclear weapons into Cuba. They did it anyway. Then they lied about it, as Gromyko did in an Oval Office meeting. JFK was urged by many of his military advisors to bomb or invade Cuba, or both; he did neither. A high-profile but limited quarantine, deft diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiations then brought the Missile Crisis to a peaceful conclusion. One member of EXCOMM later said that if any of the other 1960 candidates had been elected, World War III would’ve broken out. Had Kennedy not handled the crisis as well as he did, none of us would be here now to debate it.

Some suggested reading:

TLDR: Kennedy made plenty of mistakes, but learned on the job and by the time of his death was capably handling U.S.-Soviet relations.