Fifty years ago this week, the world found itself staring apocalypse in the face. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we have ever come to all-out nuclear war and the ensuing mutually assured destruction.
Remarkably, John F Kennedy had a tape recorder running 24/7 in the White House throughout this period so we have exact word-by-word transcripts of the discussions that took place. This was the most important negotiation the world has ever seen and we are lucky enough to know in great detail the various strategies considered and ultimately executed.
Below is an excerpt from my book, Negotiation Mastery, that relates the events and the negotiation as they unfolded.
The most important negotiation the world has ever seen
“I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday. It was a beautiful fall day; and I remember thinking that I might never live to see another Saturday night”.
So said American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, amidst the most important negotiation the world has ever seen.
With nuclear war imminent, the future of the world was balanced on a knife-edge.
On October 14th, 1962, a U-2 spy plane on a routine reconnaissance flight over the island finds clear evidence that the Soviet Union is secretly building nuclear missile capability on the island of Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the United States. Such a deadly threat cannot be tolerated.
Kennedy chooses a strong but considered response. He publicly calls upon Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles whilst at the same time announcing a blockade on ships carrying weapons to Cuba. He mobilises 180,000 troops, ready for invasion and places America’s own nuclear missiles on ready alert with twenty planes in the air poised to launch an attack on the USSR. He is prepared to stand up to what he sees as Russian bullying.
Khrushchev’s response is immediate and pugnacious, declaring Kennedy’s statement to be a serious threat to world peace and under no circumstances can the Soviet Union comply. He places his own ICBM nuclear strike force on high alert.
The fight is on.
It is Wednesday, 24thOctober. Nearly three hundred American ships move into position on the quarantine line with instructions to use force on any Russian ship that refuses to halt. Twenty-five Soviet ships are sailing towards them, with submarine support. Khrushchev’s order is for the ships to continue on their way and not stop. The American Navy will have to sink them to prevent them getting through.
According to Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, they are staring down “the gun barrel of nuclear war”.
Events accelerate. Russian troops in Cuba are put on standby and authorised to use tactical nuclear weapons if they think fit. The U.S. Navy boards the Soviet ship Marucla for inspection. A U-2 spy plane accidentally strays into Russian airspace but escapes before being caught by Red Army fighter planes. A U.S. reconnaissance plane is hit by Cuban gunfire. Another U-2 is shot down over Cuba. The Navy drop depths charges on Russian submarines, the Russians are poised to launch nuclear torpedos in return.
Eyeball-to-eyeball. Pistols cocked. Hair trigger. Anything can happen. According to the Soviet General and Army Chief of Operations, Anatoly Gribkov, “Nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread … and we weren’t counting days or hours, but minutes.”
Kennedy does not want war but nor will he yield to bullying. He declares, “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.” As his brother Robert later said, “Every opportunity was to be given to the Russians to find a peaceful settlement which would not diminish their national security or be a public humiliation.”
Khrushchev, it turns out, does not want war either. Like Kennedy, he sees the terrible danger of accidental Armageddon so when offered the chance to achieve his interests by different means, he takes it.
Kennedy promises he will respect Cuba’s freedom and gives a secret promise to withdraw 15 US missiles stationed in Turkey, and Khrushchev agrees to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. The Soviet Defence Minister gives the order “Remove them as soon as possible. Before something terrible happens.”
The world steps back from the brink.