Fidel Castro—Nikita Khrushchev Messages During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

A prior post criticized Fidel Castro for an October 26, 1962, letter to Nikita Khrushchev suggesting that the Soviet Union should launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States.

Additional insight into that and other communications between the two men during that crisis is provided in a lengthy book about a 1992 conference in Havana regarding that crisis.[1] The participants in the conference included Fidel himself; Robert S. McNamara, who was the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time; Aleksandr Alekseev, the Soviet ambassador to Cuba at the time; Oleg Troyanovsky, special assistant to Nikita Khrushchev at the time; 12 other participants in the crisis; 14 scholars of the crisis; and 14 other attendees.

For the purpose of this blog post, Fidel provided commentary on nine key events in addition to the previously cited letter (in bold below): (1) the Soviet offer of missiles to Cuba, May 1962; (2) Soviet deployment of the missiles, August 1962; (3) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 23, 1962; (4) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 26, 1962; (5) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 28, 1962; (6) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 28, 1962; (7) Khrushchev’s letter to Castro, October 30, 1962; (8) Castro’s letter to Khrushchev, October 31, 1962; (9) Time Magazine’s publication of extracts from Khrushchev’s Memoirs, October 1, 1990; and (10) Cuba’s publication of five of the October 1962 Khrushchev-Castro letters, November 1990.

Discussion of the Key Events

  1. Soviet Offer of Missiles to Cuba, May 1962

In May 1962 Soviet General Marshall Biryuzov visited Cuba and asked Fidel what would be necessary to prevent U.S. invasion of Cuba. Fidel said there would be no invasion if the U.S. knew “that any aggression against Cuba would entail a war not just with Cuba.” Biryuzov then proposed that the Soviet Union provide missiles to Cuba. Fidel did not like the idea for Cuba’s own defense because the missiles would turn Cuba into a Soviet military base and thereby damage the image of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America. But Fidel accepted the proposal because he thought the missiles would strengthen the entire socialist camp. (Pp. 197-99, 242)

Fidel said that he “never regarded the missiles as something that one day would be used against the U.S. . . . in an unjustified first strike. [Khrushchev] insisted that they would never launch a nuclear first strike. The idea was an obsession with him.” However, at the 1992 conference Fidel said Cuba’s “decision to deploy nuclear weapons . . . entailed the risk of our involvement in a nuclear war. . . . [W]e always thought that in the event of a nuclear war . . . we would have been involved. . . . We’ve always thought that in a nuclear war, the whole world would be included in it, and it would affect everyone. . . . [W]e started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that. If the invasion took place in the situation that had been created, nuclear war would have been the result. Everybody here was resigned to the fate that . . . we would disappear.” (Pp. 200, 251-52)

  1. Soviet Deployment of Missiles, August 1962

In August 1962 after the deployment of the missiles in Cuba, Fidel said he urged Khrushchev to make a public announcement of the deployment so that the U.S. could not argue that there was Soviet and Cuban deception over the missiles. This suggestion was not accepted by the Soviets. (P. 205)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 23, 1962

In reaction to President’s October 22nd public announcement of the presence of missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev sent a letter the next day (October 23) to Fidel stating that the U.S. announcement was “an exceptional interference in the affairs of the Republic of Cuba, a violation of the norms of international law and of the fundamental rules that govern relations among States, and as a blatant act of provocation against the Soviet Union.” The Soviet Union has sent a “protest against the piratical actions of the U.S. Government, denouncing them as perfidious and aggressive . . . and [declaring] its determination to fight actively against such nations.” As a result, “we have issued instructions to our military personnel in Cuba on the need to adopt the necessary measures to be completely ready for combat.” (Pp. 211-13)

Fidel, at the 1992 conference, said he saw this Khrushchev letter as “a clear and firm determination to fight.” Fidel thought that this Khrushchev letter clearly meant war as Fidel “could not conceive of any retreat.”   (P. 213)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 26, 1962

With this in mind, Fidel wrote an October 26th letter to Khrushchev saying he thought U.S. “aggression” against Cuba is “almost imminent within the next 24 or 72 hours” as either an air attack to destroy certain targets or a large-scale invasion of the island. If the latter, “the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it . . . . that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.” (Pp. 213, 481-82) (Emphasis added.)

In his October 31, 1962, letter to Khrushchev (discussed below), Fidel said he realized the words of his 10/26/62 letter “could be misinterpreted by you and that is what happened, perhaps because you did not read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines.” Fidel also said in this later letter that at the time of the 10/26/62 letter, “We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of a nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield.” Fidel added, “I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding . . . when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.” In this later letter, Fidel said he did not suggest in the 10/26/62 letter that the Soviets should be the aggressor, but if “the imperialists attack Cuba [and Soviet forces here, the imperialists], . . . would become the aggressors, “and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.”

At the 1992 conference, Fidel said the 10/26/62 letter was a “very sensitive message, and I reviewed it very carefully.” He did not want his letter to hurt Khrushchev, nor did he want to indicate that the Cubans “were worried or afraid.” Therefore, the letter commended him for being a “tireless defender of peace” and expressed “hope that peace will be safeguarded.” Fidel also wanted to encourage Khrushchev and to avoid mistakes. Fidel, therefore, “proposed some ideas as to what should be done in the event of, not an air strike, but of an invasion of Cuba in an attempt to occupy it.” (Pp. 251, 361) (Emphasis added.)

As mentioned in the prior post, Fidel’s October 26 letter was written in the late evening/early morning in the underground bunker of the Soviet embassy in Havana with the Soviet ambassador, Aleksandr Alekseev. At the 1992 conference Fidel asserted that on this date in 1962, he expected an imminent U.S. air strike or invasion and, therefore, needed to write to Khrushchev to explain the situation. (Pp. 116-18)

As Fidel was writing this letter in Spanish, Alekseev at the 1992 conference said he and another Soviet official were translating the letter into Russian. But the Soviet officials “did not have a perfect mastery of the [Spanish] language, and if we had, I think Khrushchev would not have been so concerned about the possibility that the letter containing a request for a preemptive strike.” In any event, Alekseev did not understand why Khrushchev “understood that Fidel was calling for a [Soviet] preemptive strike.”(Pp. 117-18)

While the writing and translating the letter was going on in 1962, Alekseev sent a brief telegram to the Kremlin stating that Fidel was meeting with us and drafting a letter and that there was the danger of an imminent U.S. air strike or invasion. (P. 118)

In the 1990 publication in the West of suppressed sections of his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed that this Fidel letter “suggested that in order to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the [U.S.]. [Fidel] concluded that an attack was unavoidable, and that this [U.S.] attack had to be preempted. . . . [We] needed to immediately deliver a nuclear missile strike against the [U.S.]. When I read this I, and all the others . . .[concluded] that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose.” In short, according to Khrushchev, Fidel had asked for an order that would have blown up the world. (P. 29)

Immediately after the 1990 publication of this portion of the Khrushchev memoirs, Fidel in a public speech in Cuba said, “Perhaps Khrushchev even interpreted it this way, but in reality it did not happen like that.” (P. 29)

The authors of the book about the 1992 conference opined that Castro crafted the 10/26/62 letter to address what he feared most at that moment: Khrushchev’s weakness and irresolution. Khrushchev saw in Castro’s letter what he feared most: warning of an imminent American attack, and confirmation of Castro’s recklessness. The letter intended to buttress Khrushchev’s resolve helped to push [him] . . . in the other direction.” (P. 362)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 28, 1962

On October 28 there was international news that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed to resolve the crisis with Soviet withdrawal of the missiles and the U.S. agreeing not to invade Cuba.

The same day Khrushchev sent a letter to Castro announcing the resolution and urging Fidel “not to be carried away by sentiment and to show firmness. . . . I understand your feelings of indignation toward the aggressive actions and violations of elementary norms of international law . . . of the [U.S.].” Please “show patience, firmness, and even more firmness. . . . [W]e will do everything possible to stabilize the situation in Cuba, defend Cuba against invasion and assure you the possibilities for peacefully building a socialist society.” (Pp. 482-83)

For Fidel, other Cuban leaders and the Cuban people, this resolution was a “great indignation” and “humiliation . . . . because we felt we had become some kind of bargaining chip. Not only was this a decision taken without consulting us, several steps were taken without informing us.” (Emphasis in original.) At the time Khrushchev was “arguably the most hated man in Cuba.” (Pp. 190, 214)

Even at the time of this conference in 1992, Fidel could not forgive Khrushchev for refusing to listen to Cuban requests in August to go public with the missile deployment, for backing down in the face of U.S. demands, for terminating the crisis without any concern for Cuban fears over their security and for betraying and insulting Cuba by treating the missiles in Cuba as a bargaining chip. In short, for Cuba the crisis was a profoundly bitter experience: U.S. aggression and Soviet abandonment. (Pp. 28-29, 189-90)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 28, 1962

The same day (October 28), Fidel responded to Khrushchev with a defense of Cuba’s shooting down a U.S. airplane over Cuban airspace. “There was danger of a [U.S.] surprise attack on certain military installations. We decided not to sit back and wait for a surprise attack. . . . We cannot accept [further U.S.] violating our airspace. . . . However, we agree we must avoid an incident at this precise moment that could seriously harm the negotiations, so we will instruct the Cuban batteries not to open fire, but only so far as long as the negotiations last . . . . (Pp. 483-84)

Fidel’s letter also stated, “we are in principle opposed to an inspection of our territory.” (Ibid.)

Finally Fidel “appreciate[s] extraordinarily the efforts you have made to keep the peace and we are absolutely in agreement with the need for struggling for that goal.” (Ibid.)

  1. Khrushchev’s Letter to Castro, October 30, 1962

 On October 30, 1962, Khrushchev sent a lengthy letter to Fidel. “We understand your situation and take into account the difficulties you now have . . . after the liquidation of maximum tension that arose due to the threat of attack . . . [by the U.S.], which you expected would occur at any moment.” (Pp. 485-88)

“We understand that certain difficulties have been created for you as a result of our [promised withdrawal of missiles from Cuba] in exchange for the U.S. commitment to abandon plans for an invasion of Cuba . . . [and ending] the blockade of Cuba. . . . This lead to the liquidation of the conflict . . . which, as you realize, was characterized by the clash of two superpowers and the possibility of it being transformed into a thermonuclear world war using missiles.” (Ibid.)

We also understand that some Cubans are upset with this resolution of the conflict. “But we, political and government figures, are leaders of a people who doesn’t know everything and can’t readily comprehend all that we leaders must deal with. Therefore, we should march at the head of the people and then the people will follow us and respect us.” (Ibid.)

The letter also rejected charges that the Soviets had not consulted with Cuba in this crisis. Fidel’s October 27th letter “proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war.” Your proposal was “incorrect.” (Ibid.)

This letter really angered Fidel. It pushed all the wrong buttons. He thought he was one with the Cuban people. He fumed that the Soviets had not informed or consulted with him. He denied he had suggested a preemptive strike. He believed the Soviets had abandoned Cuba. He did not trust U.S. promises. (Pp. 362-64)

  1. Castro’s Letter to Khrushchev, October 31, 1962

Fidel was furious over the last Khrushchev letter and exploded in his response. (Pp. 364-65, 489-91)

Khrushchev erroneously said Cuba was consulted about the promised withdrawal of missiles. Fidel’s October 26th letter advised and alerted the Soviets about “the possibility of an attack which we could not prevent but could resist” and would do so “heroically” and “calmly.” Fidel realized the words of his letter “could be misinterpreted by you and that is what happened, perhaps because you did not read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines.” (Ibid.)

“We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of a nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield.” (Ibid.)

“I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding . . . when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.” I did not suggest that the Soviets should be the aggressor, but if “the imperialists attack Cuba [and Soviet forces here], they would become the aggressors, “and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.” (Ibid.)

There are “many Cubans who are experiencing at this moment unspeakable bitterness and sadness.” (Ibid.)

  1. Time Magazine’s Publication of Extracts from Khrushchev’s Memoirs, October 1, 1990

 On October 1, 1990, Time Magazine published excerpts from Nikita Khrushchev’s secret tapes that he had made while under virtual arrest near Moscow between 1964 and 1971.[2] The tapes had the following three key passages regarding Soviet missiles in Cuba:

  • Khrushchev said before 1962 he had been troubled by the question: “How were we supposed to strengthen and reinforce Cuba? . . . We concluded that we could send 42 missiles, each with a warhead of one megaton. We picked targets in the U.S. to inflict the maximum damage. We saw that our weapons could inspire terror. The two nuclear weapons the U.S. used against Japan at the end of the war were toys by comparison. . . . Castro gave his approval. . . . It was our intention after installing the missiles to announce their presence in a loud voice. They were not meant for attack but as a means of deterring those who would attack Cuba.”
  • [In the October 26th letter] “Castro suggested that to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the U.S. My comrades in the leadership and I realized that our friend Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose. We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the U.S. but to keep the U.S. from attacking Cuba.”
  • After the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached an agreement for the removal of the missiles in Cuba, “Castro was hotheaded. He thought we were retreating—worse, capitulating. He did not understand that our action was necessary to prevent a military confrontation. He also thought that America would not keep its word and that once we removed the missiles, the U.S. would invade Cuba. He was very angry with us. . . . We believed this came from his being young and inexperienced as a statesman.”

In the entire book published later that month, Khrushchev claimed that this Fidel letter “suggested that in order to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a preemptive strike against the [U.S.]. [Fidel] concluded that an attack was unavoidable, and that this [U.S.] attack had to be preempted. . . . [We] needed to immediately deliver a nuclear missile strike against the [U.S.]. When we read this, . . . it became clear to us that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose.” (P. 29) The book (p. 173) also contains a full-page map of the western hemisphere showing the ranges of the medium-range and intermediate-range Soviet missiles based in Cuba to include virtually all of the continental U.S.

  1. Cuba’s publication of Certain Khrushchev-Castro letters, November 23, 1990.

On November 23, 1990, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, published five of the above Khrushchev-Castro letters from October 1962 (in Spanish) [Numbers 4 through 8 above] along with a lengthy introduction obviously written by Fidel. (English translations also were published by Granma in early December 1990.) (Pp. 474-81)

The introduction justified the publication of these letters as a response to the Time Magazine article just mentioned and asserted an “objective and calm reading of” Fidel’s letters of October 26, 28 and 31 “shows precisely the real context in which a possible nuclear strike against the [U.S.] was discussed.” (P. 476)

At the time “Cuba and the USSR were both convinced . . . that the [U.S.] was preparing to attack Cuba directly. Under these circumstances, [the USSR and Cuba] . . . signed a military agreement which strengthened the defenses of both [parties].” This included the “deployment in Cuba of medium- and intermediate-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads and the presence of more than 40,000 Soviet soldiers.” (P. 477)

“Fidel and the Cuban leadership realized . . . that the presence of Soviet missiles [in Cuba could] . . . increase the dangers of confrontation of another sort with the [U.S.].” Moreover, “at the time we expected the USSR to struggle to defend Cuba in case of an attack by the [U.S.].” At the time Cuba proposed that [the Cuba-USSR] military agreement, including the deployment of the missiles, be made public, but Khrushchev refused while stressing “that the USSR was willing to go as far as necessary, even if the agreement and missiles were discovered before they were made public.” (Pp. 477-78)

This introduction wondered if there had been an erroneous translation of his October 26 letter from Spanish into Russian. (P. 479)

Fidel believed that a U.S. invasion of Cuba at the time would have constituted an act of aggression against both Cuba and the USSR due to the latter’s missiles and 43,000 soldiers on the island and thus a war against the two countries plus a simultaneous or subsequent U.S. nuclear strike on Soviet territory. Therefore, in his October 26 letter Fidel warned Khrushchev that the USSR should never allow “’circumstances in which the imperialists [the U.S.] could strike the first nuclear blow against it,’ eliminating such a danger then and forever in an act of rightful defense.” (P. 478)

In addition, Fidel says his October 31 letter provided an “impeccable” explanation of the earlier letter as not calling for a preemptive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. (P. 480)

Conclusion

 It seems clear to this blogger that Fidel in his October 26th letter was urging Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the U.S. invaded Cuba. Fidel, however, did not suggest a preemptive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union if there were no U.S. invasion of the island. Nevertheless, Fidel was proposing what could have been a thermonuclear world war with millions of deaths.

This sequence of messages, now translated into English in this book, were in the first instance written in Spanish by Castro and in Russian by Khrushchev. To what extent were there miscommunications in 1962 because of errors in translation as former ambassador Alekseev suggested at the 1992 conference and as the November 1990 Granma article wondered? The cited book does not seek to answer that question.

It also is easy to forget that in 1962 there were no instantaneous electronic communications between Havana and Moscow via fax machines and email. To what extent were there miscommunications between these two leaders because of the lack of instantaneous communications? This is another unresolved question.

Another issue posed by these events and communications is whether the different countries at the time had different opinions on the relative nuclear and missile strengths of the U.S. and the USSR and whether such differing opinions affected the actions of the three countries. This issue will be explored in a future post.

Finally this blogger has not attempted to find and examine what must be an extensive body of original and secondary sources on the Cuban missile crisis to see what light they may shed on the issue of possible nuclear war in 1962. Comments by others who have greater knowledge on these issues would be greatly appreciated.

==================================================

[1] James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, The Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse (Pantheon Books; New York; 1993). A second edition of the book was published in 2002.

[2] Khrushchev’s Secret Tapes, Time (Oct. 1, 1990); Khrushchev (Schecter & Luchkov, editors & translators), Khrushchev Remembers: the Glasnost Tapes, pp. 170-83 (Boston; Little Brown & Co., 1990); Ulam, Castro Was a Hothead, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 1990)  Pear, Khrushchev Memoir Tells of Castro Plea For Attack on U.S., N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 1990).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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