How close of a call was the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War?

Perhaps the most dramatic event of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. For 13 days in October 1962, the US used diplomacy and threats to get recently-placed Soviet nuclear missiles removed from Cuba. It was hailed as a diplomatic triumph for the US, preventing a nuclear war, and assuring US dominance over the western hemisphere. President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the Cuban missiles without the US conceding anything. The US went “eyeball to eyeball” with the Soviets, and the Soviets blinked. That’s the standard story, anyway.

As you can guess, Buzzkillers, there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings in the history of something this big. Here are the most important ones, and the real histories behind them.

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The “eyeball to eyeball” myth

October 24, 1962 was the height of the CMC. The US had established a “quarantine” around Cuba. Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles are steaming toward the quarantine/blockade line. The world is holding its breath. Would Khruschev and the Soviet navy try to cross the line? Would the US navy turn them back by force? Would it all become a shooting war?

According to the standard story, the Soviet ships were within a few miles of the quarantine, but turned around just before forcing a confrontation. There were stories, at the time and subsequently, that a US ship had fired a shot across the bow of a Soviet ship that was closing in on Cuba. After that, the Soviets backed down and sailed back to the USSR.

As the story goes, at this moment of nuclear brinksmanship, the Soviets caved. Huddled in the Oval Office with the President and a handful of key advisors, Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, supposed said: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

But is that what happened? Was there a shot fired across the Soviet bow? Was it, in nautical terms, a very close run thing?

No, no, and no.

At the “crucial moment,” the Kimovsk, the lead ship in the Soviet convoy, was nearly 750 miles away the supposed “eyeball to eyeball” quarantine line. And, it was already leading the Soviet ships away from Cuba and towards home. Nikita S. Khrushchev, had ordered them to turn around over 24 hours before they would have reached the critical line.

So the“eyeball to eyeball” moment never happened, and both Kennedy and Khrushchev now appear to be a lot less confrontational in a schoolyard way than the Cuban Missile Crisis mythology has told us. Each side was willing to make concessions to the other, it’s just that each side was also furiously calculating not only what to say to each other, but how to spin it for the public (and for history).

The “Trollope Ploy” and the Jupiter Missiles

The furious strategizing in Washington D.C. and Moscow, as well as how to present the events to the public at the time and to history ever since, may be best explained by looking at two crucial aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis that aren’t so well known.

The first is the myth of the “Trollope Ploy.” The Trollope Play is a situation where Person A purposely misinterprets Person B’s proposal (usually by a matter of degree, emphasis, or tone) so that it becomes acceptable. Person A then responds to Person B as if the changed proposal is what Person B meant all along. It comes from a plot device often (perhaps over-) employed by characters in one of the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollople’s, complicated and lengthy novels of social satire.

In the Cuban Missile case, Robert MacNamara (Secretary of Defense), Robert Kennedy (the Attorney General), and Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) described the deciding back-and-forth negotiating point with Khrushchev as a clever use of the Trollope Ploy by JFK and his administration. In the most worshipful versions of the story, JFK was able to “play” Khrushchev, get what the US wanted, and make it look as if he (JFK) had outsmarted the Soviet leader and out-brinksmanshipped him.

Here’s how it happened in the traditional version of the story. On October 26, 1962, Khrushchev wrote privately to JFK that he would only withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba if the US would promise not to invade Cuba. The next day, Khrushchev made a second statement saying that the Soviet missiles would be withdrawn if the US removed their Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey (which were aimed at the Soviet Union).

JFK and his advisors then pushed the button on the Trollope Ploy. They responded only to the first proposal (not to invade Cuba). They ignored the second one (about the missiles in Turkey). Taken together, the non-response to the Jupiter missile demand and the positive response not to invade Cuba were died-in-the-wool Trollope Ploy tactics.

That’s the story that went out then (and since). The problem is that’s not what happened. And, as is often the case, the subtleties and nuances of what was said when and how have tinted popular interpretation of the CMC resolution. Khrushchev’s first request (the invasion one) was private, but the second one (the Jupiter missile one) was made in a public speech.

By doing that, Khrushchev had actually put Kennedy in a bind, not the other way around. He was offering Kennedy a way out of the problem (getting him to promise not to invade Cuba), but was also implying that the Jupiters had to go as well (even though that didn’t need to be made public by the US). Khrushchev would get what he wanted, but he was giving JFK a face-saving way of agreeing to the Jupiter missile withdrawal.

Perhaps, then, it was the US who “blinked,” because Khrushchev was employing a kind of “Reverse Trollope Ploy.” It’s beginning to sound like a titanic Cold War chess match, isn’t it? Perhaps it was the Soviets who were able to check-mate the US, and not the other way around.


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The Vasili Archipov Story

Edward Wilson, author of the novel, “The Midnight Swimmer” (about the Crisis), wrote in The Guardian on the 50th anniversary of the CMC, “if you born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

[a senior officer on a Soviet nuclear submarine] saved your life.” How true is this?

The story:

27 October 1962: US Navy warships located the Soviet nuclear-armed submarine, B-59. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping depth charges intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. The B-59 hadn’t heard from Moscow for a number of days because it had been cruising too deep to get radio messages. It was trying to evade US Navy ships. When the depth charges started coming down, the B-59’s captain freaked (not surprisingly). He thought war had already started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo against the American ships.

Here’s where Vasili Arkhipov comes in. Soviet naval rules required that all three of the top officers on board the B-59 agree to authorize a nuclear launch: the captain, the political officer, and our new best friend, Vasili. An argument broke out between these officers. Arkhipov was against the launch, but the two others (including the captain) wanted to push the button and launch a nuclear torpedo against one of the US aircraft carriers above them.

Despite heated argument, because of the voting rules, the captain had to agree to surface to get radio orders from Moscow. Once they surfaced, they got the word that nuclear war had not started. They were also surrounded by US Navy warships, so they decided to beat it home.

But debate continues about how heated the arguments between the top officers on the B-59 really were. One of the junior officers, Vadim Orlov, said in 2002 that the sub’s captain had calmed down fairly quickly and the idea of launching the nuclear torpedo was put on hold. So, does Vasili Arkhipov deserve the credit that he sometimes gets for saving the world? We’ll probably never know. But, thankfully, he did cast the dissenting vote, and perhaps it was decisive.

Both the Arkhipov story and the Kennedy/Khrushchev story indicate that, at perhaps the most dramatic moment in Cold War history, the major political figures as well as lower-ranking military officers seem to have reacted pretty calmly and have weighed all their options before acting and speaking. Are we putting the Buzzkill seal on the idea that all the crucial people in the Cuban Missile Crisis acted like grown-ups? Let’s hope so.


Looking for more information on the Cuban Missile Crisis? Check out these books and short video below:

“The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957-1963” by Philip Nash

“One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War” by Michael Dobbs

“Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Robert F. Kennedy