40 Years After Missile Crisis, Players Swap Stories in Cuba
By Kevin Sullivan
Sunday; Page A28
HAVANA, Oct. 12 -- There was pandemonium on the Soviet B-59 submarine.
A U.S. destroyer was lobbing depth charges into the water as a warning:
you will be attacked. The explosions pounded the sub's hull like blasts from a sledgehammer. Oxygen was running out. Crewmen were fainting.
Tensions were extreme: It was Oct. 27, 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
Officers on the Soviet were screaming for the captain to sink the U.S.
ship. What the Americans did not know nearly blew up the world: The Soviet
sub, and three
others in the waters off Cuba, each carried one torpedo tipped with a nuclear warhead.
Vadim Orlov, a crewman on the Soviet sub, recounted the little-known
story here this weekend during a conference marking the 40th anniversary
of the missile
Historians have long noted that the United States and the Soviet Union
came within a whisper of nuclear war during the 13-day standoff, after
the United States
discovered that Moscow had secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The account, from Orlov and J.W. Peterson, a crewman from the U.S. destroyer,
made it clear that the Cold War enemies came far closer than anyone ever
to stumbling into a nuclear holocaust.
Former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara said that a nuclear attack
on a U.S. ship could easily have escalated into a full-scale nuclear exchange
United States and the Soviet Union.
Orlov, who described the episode in a book published earlier this year,
said that came within one word of happening: The sub was authorized to
fire its nuclear
torpedo with the approval of three officers aboard; two wanted to shoot, the third said no.
"A guy named Arkhipov saved the world," said Thomas S. Blanton, director
of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington
that organized this week's conference with the Cuban government, and arranged the declassification of thousands of new documents that the participants are
It has been a weekend of casual talk about nuclear annihilation. The
conference, in a sprawling hotel on the outskirts of Havana, brought together
men from a
generation that nearly destroyed a world still getting the feel of its nuclear muscles.
The participants have come here, they said, to learn more about an episode
that changed their lives in ways that still make them shudder. They said
they have come
to make sure it does not happen again, and to offer lessons for today's crises, most notably President Bush's deliberations about whether to strike Iraq.
President Fidel Castro of Cuba sat on one side of the room in a stiff
blue suit, his famous black beard gone thunderstorm gray, his signature
cigars long since given
up. He still spoke in rambling circles he could not seem to close in less than an hour. He was still a master entertainer, funny and excitable.
Gray-haired former Russian generals sat along one flank of the conference
table. They had not lost the Soviet gift for cement-thick oratory, giving
about throw-weights and tonnages. Across from them, surviving members of President John F. Kennedy's administration were lined up like a living page from a
history book. McNamara sat in a blue and white polo shirt. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. looked out through thick glasses, wearing his trademark bow tie,
addressing his old adversaries with sharp logic and perfect diction.
Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, sat behind McNamara with fine posture and fashion, a living reminder of other prices paid during a tumultuous era.
Kennedy speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen was remarkably youthful and
trim in a black polo shirt. Fellow Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, his hair
curly, sat alongside him and told Castro a story about meeting Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the legendary revolutionary, at a party in Uruguay in August 1961.
Castro laughed as Goodwin spoke of sitting cross-legged on the floor
talking to Guevara about hemispheric tensions. He said Guevara gave him
a mahogany box
filled with Cuban cigars, which Goodwin delivered to President Kennedy. He said Kennedy immediately grabbed one and lit it up. Then, in an echo of the CIA's
attempts to kill Castro with poisoned cigars, Kennedy joked that he probably ought to have made Goodwin test a cigar first, just in case.
William Ecker, 78, a retired U.S. Navy captain, was a pilot who flew
low-level sorties in an F-8 fighter jet to photograph Soviet missile installations
in Cuba. His
close-up pictures taken on Oct. 23, proved beyond doubt the existence of the missiles. On Sunday, the conference participants were scheduled to tour the remains
of the site that Ecker photographed.
"It's not just a conference of remembrance, it's also a conference of
reconciliation," Sorensen said. "And that is a pretty good message to a
world on the verge of
Also sitting on the American side of the conference table was Dino Brugioni,
a former CIA analyst who interpreted the first U-2 spy plane photos that
missiles in Cuba. Brugioni, now 80, has insistently challenged the Russian participants on their version of events.
Russian participants said they never intended to fire the nuclear missiles
that were positioned on Cuban soil, and that they were careful to keep
the warheads and the
missiles in separate locations. But Brugioni pointed to spy-plane photographs, declassified by the National Security Archive, that showed trucks loaded with
warheads parked next to the missiles on their launch pads.
In an interview, Brugioni recalled the events of Saturday, Oct. 27, 1962, when events seemed to be spinning out of control.
On that day, new surveillance photos showed that the missile sites were
now fully operational. He said the missiles could be fueled and launched
on six to eight hours'
notice. A U.S. U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba. On the other side of the world, another U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace and Soviet MiG fighter jets
scrambled to intercept it, adding to already white-hot tensions. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had not been seen in three days, adding to speculation that he had
been overthrown by hard-liners.
Brugioni's said his boss at the CIA returned from briefing Kennedy on
the new spy-plane photos. "How did it go?" Brugioni said he asked. "Not
good at all,"
Brugioni said he replied. "The president is very concerned."
"I called my wife and I said, 'If you get another call from me, put
the kids in the car and head for Missouri,' " said Brugioni, who brought
his 22-year-old grandson to
the conference. "October 27 is a day I'll never forget. The planet could have been destroyed."
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