Oct. 27, 2022

The Height of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Height of the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 27th 1962: Major Rudolf Anderson of the United States Air Force becomes the only direct human casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis when his U-2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile.


Cold Open

It’s October 27th, 1962, just off the coast of Cuba.

A Soviet B-59 submarine navigates the tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea. Inside, executive officer Vasili Arkhipov watches the sonar system scan the surface for American ships. The sub’s cooling system has failed and it’s swelteringly hot. But it’s not just the heat that’s making Vasili sweat. Recently, the United States imposed a blockade around Cuba. The purpose of the blockade is to stop Soviet shipments of nuclear missiles from reaching the island. Vasili knows his submarine has just entered the restricted zone. And if the Americans catch them, their presence will be considered an act of aggression and could spark all-out war.

Vasili's anxieties are heightened when a green blip appears in the corner of the sonar screen, registering the presence of a US Navy destroyer. The blip moves steadily across the dial, closing in on the submarine. A tense silence grips the B-59’s crew as they watch and wait.

The silence is broken… by a low rumbling explosion in the water. Vasili suspects the Americans are dropping depth charges. They aren’t meant to destroythe submarine, only to force the vessel to come to the surface for identification.

Vasili clenches his teeth as another depth charge goes off, this one louder than the first. But then all falls silent. And for a moment, Vasili wonders if the destroyer might have moved off, until... there’s a third detonation, the biggest and loudest one yet. The charges are getting closer.

Panic breaks out among the crew. Driven delirious by the blistering heat, the captain grabs the nuclear engineer by the shoulders and orders him to prepare the torpedo for launch.

Vasili’s blood runs cold. He knows submarine is armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo - a weapon as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. 

Vasili rushes over to his commander and begs him not to fire. But the captain is insistent, spluttering: “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna die without taking out some of their boats!” Vasili knows he’s supposed to follow the captain’s orders. To object further would amount to mutiny. But he also knows the future of humankind hangs in the balance. So he presses his case and pleads further with the captain to see reason. To Vasili’s relief, the captain relents and calls off the torpedo strike. Soon, the submarine will turn around and begin the long journey back to the Soviet Union. But Vasili is shaken. He knows how close they just came to starting World War Three. If his Captain had not relented, the Soviets would have incited nuclear war, and invited the US to unleash the full strength of its own atomic arsenal…

For thirteen days in 1962, the world found itself on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. The discovery of Soviet nuclear missile bases on Cuba threatened to send America’s political leadership into a panic. Thanks to Vasili Arkhipov’s intervention, calamity was avoided on board the Soviet B-59 submarine. But in the skies over Cuba, disaster will soon strike. An American pilot will be shot down by the Soviet military while his spy plane circles the skies above Cuba. And American President John F. Kennedy will be forced to decide whether to retaliate or let cooler heads prevail as the Cuban Missile Crisis reaches its climax on this day, October 27th, 1962.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 27th, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis Reaches a Climax.

Act One: The ExComm

It’s September 4th, 1962 in Washington DC; just over a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis begins.

President John F. Kennedy sits behind his desk in the Oval Office preparing for a press conference. Ripples of unease disturb the calm surface of the President’s ordinarily suave demeanor because whatever he says today could come back to haunt him.

Since his inauguration, last January, Kennedy’s presidency has been dominated by the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union. One of the key battlegrounds of that conflict is the struggle between both nations to amass more nuclear weapons than their rival. This “arms race” has driven both the US and the USSR to acquire vast arsenals of atomic missiles with the power to destroy the entire world several times over.

Such violent ruin is an outcome that both Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev want to avoid. For both leaders, nuclear weapons are deterrents; they’re not meant to be fired, but merely to warn their enemies of the severe consequences that couldbe unleashed.

But as the Cold War continued to intensify, Kennedy and Khrushchev came to understand that it wasn’t enough to merely possessnuclear weapons. To gain the upper hand, both countries sought to position their missiles as close as possible to their rival’s borders. Americans have placed a missile base in Turkey, where nuclear warheads are pointed directly at the Soviet Union’s major cities. But lately, rumors have reached Washington about Soviet plans to place their offensive ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba - just ninety miles from Florida.

But at the mere thought of Cuba, Kennedy’s heart starts to race. He stands and walks to the window, gazing out over the sunlit lawn, deep in thought.

Throughout his young presidency, Cuba has been a thorn in Kennedy’s side. The island is ruled by the young communist dictator Fidel Castro, whose animosity toward the US is well-known. The Cold War is an ideological conflict between the capitalist West and communist East, so the presence of a communist country just ninety miles from American soil is a source of constant concern for Kennedy. He doesn’t like the idea of the Soviet Union having a potential ally so close to America’s borders.

So Kennedy’s administration has been working hard to topple Castro and replace his regime with one friendlier to the United States. But so far, their efforts have failed and only served to push Castro and Khrushchev closer together. Under threat from the US, Castro recently sought a formal alliance with the Soviet Union, confirming Kennedy’s worst fears. 

Now, word is filtering out of Cuba that Khruschev is equipping Castro with ballistic missiles. Kennedy doesn’t want to believe these rumors. His intelligence advisors have informed him that no conclusive evidence of Soviet weaponry has been found. And Kennedy is relieved. But he’s also concerned. If the Soviets wereto position missiles on the island, the pressure would mount on Kennedy to take firm, decisive action. And in the Cold War, “decisive actions” can lead to undesirable outcomes or even unthinkable ones. 

So this afternoon, in his press conference, Kennedy makes a calculated risk. He doesn’t want to commit himself to military action against the Soviet Union. But he also doesn’t want to look weak. So he announces - boldly and categorically - that he will not allow anyballistic missiles to be sent to Cuba. Kennedy hopes Khruschev will heed his warning.

But Kennedy will find his move backfiring again. One month after his press conference, on the morning of October 16th, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor steps into the Oval Office, his expression grave. He hands the President a manila folder containing images captured by a CIA reconnaissance plane above Cuba. The grainy photographs reveal the unmistakable outline of a missile base.

Kennedy’s suddenly afraid of what's before him. Clearly, the whispers of ballistic weapons arriving on Cuban soil were not just rumors. He now has irrefutable proof that medium-range missile bases have been installed on the island. These weapons have a range of 2,200 miles – capable of targeting practically anywhere in the United States, including Washington D.C. Kennedy thinks back to the ultimatum he gave Khruschev. The President knows he can’t back out now for fear of appearing weak. His only option is to tackle this crisis head-on.

Kennedy sets up a team of trusted advisors called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or the ExComm. With the curtains drawn around the Oval Office, the ExComm discusses next steps. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advocates a ground invasion of Cuba, but Kennedy wants to avoid nuclear war, so he tries to avoid measures that could be perceived as directlyconfrontational.

Instead, the President orders a naval blockade of Cuba, dispatching battleships to prevent further deliveries of Soviet armaments. He also instructs U2 spy planes to fly regular reconnaissance flights over Cuba, snapping photographs of the missile sites. And soon, these photographs reveal that the situation is even more dangerous than Kennedy thought. The Soviet missiles on Cuba are now armed with nuclear warheads.

Until now, Kennedy has kept the nuclear nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis strictly confidential. But soon, Kennedy decides to alert the American public to the peril. On October 22nd, Kennedy makes a televised address, announcing that Soviet atomic missile bases have been discovered on Cuba. The President urges Khruschev to remove the weapons from the island, for the sake of the future of humanity.

But Khrushchev does not seem to listen. Over the next five days, the US and USSR will continue to lurch ever closer to nuclear war - until the death of an American pilot sends shockwaves through American and Soviet political leaderships, and brings this simmering crisis to a boiling point.

Act Two: Black Saturday

It’s the morning of October 27th, 1962.

Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. crosses the sun-baked tarmac at the McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida. The thirty-five-year-old pilot is about to embark on a dangerous reconnaissance mission over Cuba. Still, Anderson is an experienced airman. He’s already flown five recon flights over Cuba, and each mission has passed without a hitch. He is not worried about this next one.

Anderson climbs into the cockpit of his Lockheed U-2 high-altitude spy plane. He goes through his preliminary checks, then tightens the straps of his pressurized suit. The U-2 plane reaches altitudes of over 70,000 feet. Should the cockpit lose air pressure, Rudy’s suit is designed to inflate and keep the pilot alive. Once all his checks are completed, Anderson flashes a thumbs-up to the technician, who closes the cockpit canopy, saying, “Have a good flight, Rudy. See you when you get back.”

Anderson glances at a photograph taped above the control panel, of his smiling wife and two boys. It’s there to remind Anderson of what’s at stake, that this mission could not only save his family’s lives but the lives of millions of people around the world. And at ten after nine in the morning, Anderson starts the engine and takes off into the clear blue sky.

Soon, he reaches northeast Cuba and crosses the island in a straight line heading south. Conditions are mostly clear, and the plane’s camera captures detailed images of the ground below. He flies over the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay before completing a U-turn and heading back north across the island. Anderson has now covered around 70% of his intended route over Cuba. And soon, it will be time to head back to Florida.

But meanwhile, inside the Soviet military command center in Havana, Lt. General Stepan Grechko watches his radar screen closely. For the last hour, he and his men have been following an American spy plane as it circles the skies above Cuba. But they haven’t received authorization from high command to shoot down the enemy aircraft. Grechko is getting impatient. For all he knows, the Americans are preparing to invade Cuba at any second; and this spy plane could be transmitting crucial intelligence relating to the position of Soviet defenses.

Grechko tries repeatedly to telephone his superior officer to again request authorization to fire. But as before, there’s no answer. Eventually, Grechko decides to take matters into his own hands, to ignore protocol, and issue the command himself. He radios the anti-aircraft missile launch site closest to the circling American spy plane and barks: “Destroy the target.” Moments later, two surface-to-air missiles are launched from northeastern Cuba.

One of the two missiles explodes near enough to the American plane that Shrapnel from the blast shatters the cockpit window and tears through Anderson’s pressurized suit. He dies instantly. The aircraft falls from the sky, pinwheeling as it plummets to Earth. The wings break off as the fuselage crashes into the jungle. Villagers and military personnel rush to investigate. They find the pilot’s dead body still strapped to his seat.

Three hours later, news of Rudolf Anderson’s death reaches President Kennedy during an ExComm meeting at the White House. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has been advocating extensive aerial strikes on Cuba, but now he pauses mid-sentence to inform Kennedy that: “A U-2 has been shot down.” The room falls into silence. The president's brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, asks: “Was the pilot killed?”. When McNamara nods, all eyes turn to President Kennedy. The President mulls on this tragic news. After a while, he looks up and says darkly: “We are now in an entirely new ball game.”

The President’s military advisors urge Kennedy to retaliate by bombing Cuba with air strikes. But Kennedy doesn’t want to abandon diplomacy just yet. His gut tells him that Khrushchev didn’t authorize the downing of the American reconnaissance plane, and he hopes that the death of Major Anderson might provide a reality check for both sides in this escalating crisis.

That evening, the President sends his brother for a secret meeting with the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. Both men agree that the situation has become far too dangerous - with the lives of millions at stake. Robert Kennedy presents the Ambassador with a compromise: if you remove your missiles from Cuba, the United States will remove its warheads from Turkey. During the meeting, the ambassador promises to relay the offer to Khruschev. But Robert Kennedy fully understands the stakes. If Khrushchev accepts the compromise, then the Cuban Missile Crisis will finally come to an end. If he rejects it, then the two rival superpowers will likely continue their current spiral toward nuclear war.

Act Three: Crisis Averted

It’s almost 5 PM on October 28th, 1962.

Nikita Khrushchev stands by the window of his office inside the Communist Party Headquarters in Moscow. The Soviet premier takes a sip of vodka, swirling the alcohol around his mouth, savoring its sharp taste. Khrushchev is exhausted. He’s barely slept over the past two weeks, as the escalating crisis in Cuba has threatened to drag the Soviet Union into a nuclear conflict with the United States.

Khruschev desperately wants to avoid war. He knows that such a confrontation would end in unprecedented destruction and death to millions. But like Kennedy, Khrushchev doesn’t want to lose face. It’s the reason he sent missiles to Cuba in the first place. Khruschev cannot tolerate letting the US occupy a stronger position in their nuclear capabilities.

But the situation quickly spiraled out of control. After Kennedy launched a naval blockade - risking direct confrontation with Soviet ships and submarines -  he ordered spy planes to fly over Cuba and gather intelligence in preparation for what Khrushchev fears could be an invasion of the island. Two days ago, Khruschev frantically wrote to Kennedy, urging him to de-escalate, appealing to his “statesmanlike wisdom.” But then yesterday, things took a turn for the worse. Khrushchev was horrified to learn of the downing of a US reconnaissance plane over Cuba. He feared this could be the first shot fired of World War Three.

This morning, though, Khruschev was relieved when he received word from the Soviet ambassador to the United States. He informed Khruschev that Kennedy was prepared to compromise: that the Americans would remove their missiles from Turkey if Khruschev did the same in Cuba.

A few hours later, Khrushchev delivers a statement on Radio Moscow. He addresses Kennedy directly, saying: “I received your message of October 27th, and I am grateful for your appreciation of the responsibility you bear for world peace and security. The Soviet government has ordered the dismantling of bases and the dispatch of equipment to the USSR. We must see to it that no other conflicts occur which might lead to a world nuclear war.”

In the end, both Kennedy and Khrushchev will stick to their promise, putting an end to the crisis that so nearly engulfed the planet in armageddon. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved without mass civilian casualties, the saga didclaim the life of one individual. Rudolf Anderson Jr. will be posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross  – the second-highest military decoration for Air Force personnel. The honor was given in recognition of the bravery he demonstrated, and the sacrifice he made for the good of humankind when his plane was brought down from the skies above Cuba on October 27th, 1962.


Next onHistory Daily.October 28, 1886. American President Grover Cleveland attends a grand ceremony in New York to dedicate the Statue of Liberty.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.