Thursday, July 3, 2008

Eyeball to Eyeball? A Myth of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Michael Dobbs new book on the Cuban Missile Crisis (One Minute to Midnight) debunks a number of myths that were spawned about the affair. Dobbs has benefited from the declassification of both Russian and American files. "Thirteen Days" (Robert F. Kennedy's book on the crisis) told the story of a close confrontation between U.S. and Soviet vessels which in fact never took place. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had described the moment as an "eyeball to eyeball" encounter on the morning of October 24, 1962 but it didn't happen. Several other books on the crisis and films have also portrayed a dramatic showdown involving the ships of both sides. Russian documents show that Khrushchev in fact had ordered Soviet vessels to turn back 24 hours before. CIA and Pentagon analysts later reconstructed the actual positions of the American and Soviet vessels which agreed with Russian accounts. Nonetheless, RFK was correct in describing the mood at the White House on that day as tense, as the President and his cabinet still believed the Soviet vessels were on course to a confrontation. But the newly available material on the ships' positions shows the Russian ships were 500 nautical miles from the American ships. Another development which caused concern at the Kennedy White House was the presence of a Soviet submarine near the blockade line, commanded by Captain Nikolai Shumkov. Early on October 24, the Russians were warned of American intentions to force Soviet subs to surface by dropping practice depth charges. However, the information was never passed onto Shumkov and his men who suddenly heard depth charges exploding around their sub. This was another tense moment which might have escalated into something far worse had not Shumkov decided to surface rather than firing back at American ships.

Interested readers will find more details at the National Security Archive website:


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