June 26, 1948 Berlin Airlift

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

Following the end of World War II in Europe, the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg. The series of agreements signed at Cecilienhof Castle and known as the Potsdam agreement built on earlier accords reached at conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, addressing issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

Among the provisions of the Potsdam agreement was the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, rougly coinciding with the then-current locations of allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

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“The red area of Germany (above) is Soviet controlled East Germany. German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line (light beige) was ceded to Poland, while a portion of the easternmost section of Germany East Prussia, Königsberg, was annexed by the USSR, as the Kaliningrad Oblast”. H/T Wikipedia

During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the mutual desire to destroy the Nazi war machine.  These were quick to reassert themselves, in the wake of German defeat.  In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin informed German communist leaders in June 1945, of his belief that the United States would withdraw within a year or two.  He had his reasons.  At that time, the Truman Administration had yet to decide whether American forces would remain in West Berlin past 1949, when an independent West German government was expected to be established.

Stalin would do everything he could to undermine the British position within its zone of occupation, and appears unconcerned about that of the French.  He and other Soviet leaders assured visiting Bulgarian and Yugoslavian delegations.  In time, all of Germany would be Soviet, and Communist.

The former German capital became the focus of diametrically opposing governing philosophies, and leaders on both sides believed all Europe to be at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

hqdefault (5)There never was any formal agreement, concerning road and rail access to Berlin through the 100-mile Soviet zone. Western leaders were forced to rely on the “good will” of a regime which had deliberately starved millions of its own citizens to death, in consolidating power.

With 2.8 million Berliners to feed, clothe and shelter from the elements, Soviet leaders permitted cargo access on only ten trains per day over a single rail line.

Western allies believed the restriction to be only be temporary, but this belief would prove to be sadly mistaken.

Only three corridors were permitted through Soviet-controlled air space. With millions to feed, the Soviets stopped delivering agricultural products from their zone in eastern Germany, in 1946. The American commander, General Lucius Clay, retaliated by stopping shipments of dismantled industries from western Germany into the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded with obstructionist policies, doing everything it could to throw sand in the gears of all four occupied zones.

US and UK zones of occupation combined into a single “bizone” in January 1947, joining with that of France and becoming the “trizone” on June 1, 1948. Representatives of these governments and that of the Benelux nations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg met twice in London to discuss the future of Germany, while Soviet leaders threatened to ignore any decisions coming out of such conferences.

The four-power solution was unworkable throughout the postwar period. For the city of Berlin, 1948 would reach the point of crisis.

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That March, Soviet authorities slowed cargo to a crawl, individually searching every truck and train. General Clay ordered a halt to train traffic on April 2, ordering that supplies to the military garrison in Berlin be transported by air. Soviets eased their restrictions a week later, but still interrupted road and rail traffic. Meanwhile, Soviet military aircraft began to harass and “buzz” allied flights in and out of West Berlin. On April 5, a Soviet Air Force Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B airliner near RAF Gatow airfield.   Everyone onboard both aircraft, were killed.

The final straw came with the currency crisis of early 1948, when the Deutsche Mark was introduced. The former Reichsmark was severely devalued by this time, with calamitous economic repercussions. The new currency went into use in all four sectors of occupied Berlin, against the wishes of the Soviets. This new currency combined with the Marshall Pan had the potential to revitalize the German economy, and that wouldn’t do. Not for Soviet policy makers, for whom a prostrate German economy remained the objective.

Soviet guards halted all traffic on the autobahn to Berlin on June 19, the day after the new currency was introduced.

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German woman burning cash, for heat

At the time, West Berlin had 36 days’ food supplies, and 45 days’ supply of coal. The western nations had scaled military operations down in the wake of the war, to the point where the western sectors of the city had only 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British and 6,100 French. Soviet military forces numbered some 1.5 million. Believing that Allied powers had no choice but to cave to their demands, Soviet authorities cut off the electricity.

While ground routes were never negotiated in and out of occupied Berlin, the same was not true of the air.  Three air routes had been agreed upon back in 1945.  These went into use on this day in 1948, beginning the largest humanitarian airlift, in history.

Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst.  These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool.  They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation.  Two million German civilians would be nothing more than a means to an end.

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RAF Sunderland flying Boat moored on the Havel near Berlin unloading salt

With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated that a daily ration of only 1,990 kilocalories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

Every.  Single. Day.

Heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline, every day.

United States Air force General Curtis LeMay was asked “Can you haul coal?” LeMay replied “We can haul anything.”

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Loading milk, bound for Berlin

The obstacles were daunting.  Postwar demobilization had diminished US cargo capabilities in Europe to a nominal 96 aircraft, theoretically capable of transporting 300 tons per day. Great Britain’s RAF was somewhat better with a capacity of 400 tons, according to General Sir Brian Robertson.

700 tons were nowhere near the 5,000 per day that was needed, but it was a start.  With additional aircraft mobilizing all over the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the people of occupied Berlin had to buy into the program.

General Clay went to Ernst Reuter, Berlin’s mayor-elect. “Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can’t guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry. And if the people of Berlin won’t stand that, it will fail. And I don’t want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval.”

Luckily, General Albert Wedemeyer was in Europe on an inspection tour, when the crisis broke out. Wedemeyer had been in charge of the previously-largest airlift in history, the China-Burma-India theater route over the Himalayas, known as “The Hump”. Reuter was skeptical but assured the authorities that the people of Berlin were behind the plan. Wedemeyer’s endorsement gave the plan a major boost. The Berlin Airlift began seventy years ago today, June 26, 1948.

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German civilians awaiting inbound aircraft, at Templehof

The Australian Air force joined in the largest humanitarian effort in history that September. The Canadians never did, believing the operation to be a provocation which would lead to war with the Soviet Union.

Through the Fall and Winter of 1948 – ’49 the airlift carried on.  Soviet authorities maintained their stranglehold but, preoccupied with rebuilding their own war-ravaged economy and fearful of the United States’ nuclear capabilities, Stalin had little choice but to look on.  On April 15, 1949, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that the Soviets were willing to lift the blockade.

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C-54 drops candy over berlin, 1948 – ’49

Negotiations were begun almost at once but now, the Allies held the stronger hand. An agreement was announced on May 4 that the blockade would be ended, in eight days’ time. A British convoy drove through the gates at a minute after midnight on May 12, though the airlift would continue, to build up a comfortable surplus.

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

39 British and 31 American airmen lost their lives during the operation.

In 1961, Communist leaders would erect a wall around their sector of the city.  Not to keep foreigners out, but to keep their own unfortunate citizens, in.  The Berlin Wall would not come down, for twenty-eight years.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

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March 11, 1958 Carolina Nuked

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way. 

If you’re ever in South Carolina, stop and enjoy the historical delights of the Pee Dee region.  About a half-hour from Pedro’s “South of the Border”, there you will find the “All-American City” of Florence, according to the National Civic League of 1965.  With a population of about 38,000, Florence describes itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance.

Oh, and the Federal Government dropped a nuke on the place.  Sixty years ago, today.

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To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way.  The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case nuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10’8″, 10,900lb, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

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The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop near his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing.  The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies, as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.

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At 15,000 ft., a warning light came on in the cockpit, and the pilot accidentally pulled the emergency release pin.  Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold a five-ton bomb.  The thing broke free and began its 15,000-ft. descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-lb. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters, as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball.  The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 12,000 kilometers, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed, but three tons of conventional explosive can wreak a lot of havoc.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-ft. wide and 35-ft. deep and destroying the Gregg residence and several out buildings.  Seven buildings within a five-mile radius, were damaged.  Both Greggs, all three of the girls and son Walter Jr. were injured, though fortunately, none fatally.

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One Mk 39 nuclear weapon fronm the Goldsboro incident remained largely intact, with parachute still attached. The second plunged into a muddy field at about 700mph, and disintegrated.

Three years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-ft. and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash. In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled. One single switch out of four, is all that prevented the detonation of at least one of them.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.”  Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the family sued the Federal Government.  They were awarded $54,000 by the United States Air force, equivalent to about $448,000 today.

Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“. There have been 32 such mishaps, since 1950. As of this date, six such weapons have been lost, and never recovered.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

February 25, 1921 Fellow Traveler

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

In the wake of the “Great War” and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed concerning the rise of radical Leftism.

00000744Far-left anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep. Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, and his deportations questionable.

436398aceb9a0d77db5df9e6439394aa--red-scare-open-handsTo this day there are those who describe the period as the “First Red Scare”, as a way to ridicule the concerns of the era. The criticism seems unfair. The thing about history, is that we know how their story ends. The participants don’t, any more than we know what the future holds for ourselves.

Looking over the international tableau of the time, the largest nation on the planet had fallen to communism, in 1917. The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921 split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

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Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was one of those who believed the winning side to be on the political Left, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers worked for a time as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.

From the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them for Soviet intelligence agents to photograph. At some point, Chambers’ idealism began to waver, with the realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.

A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats, though these committees sometimes did more to construct the image of a threat than they did to stop one. It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.

Alger Hiss
Alger Hiss

Whittaker Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration as early as 1939, the FBI interviewed him in 1942.  Government priorities began to change n the wake of WWII, and Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945, where he named Alger Hiss and others as Communists.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He had gone on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. By this time Hiss was a high ranking official in the State Department.

Hiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit for defamation of character in December. Chambers escalated in his 1948 deposition for the suit, claiming that, not only was Hiss a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.

pumpkinBefore defecting from the Left, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The collection was known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.

Defending himself, Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlett. When the idiosyncrasies of Hiss’ machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team including freshman member of Congress Richard M. Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.

woodstockHiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic its imperfections with a second.

Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4.  A second trial began on November 17, found him guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950.  Hiss maintained that he was innocent but lost his conviction, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.

What many saw as a devoted civil servant maligned by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940, others believed to be a liar and enemy agent.  Alger Hiss went to his grave in 1996, protesting his innocence.

Soviet-era cables, decrypted through a now-declassified program called the “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945 from the Soviet Washington station chief to Moscow, describes the subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 conference at Yalta, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta on these dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

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Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tie approximately 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half that number were ever identified.  The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.

The CIA’s official conclusion, based on the CIA.gov on-line library is that “Although no specific file on Hiss has been released from the KGB or GRU archives, enough material has been found in other files–in Moscow, Eastern Europe, and Washington–to enable historians to write several new works that leave almost no room for doubt about Hiss’ guilt”.

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October 22, 1962  Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock had broken before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  The events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to nuclear extinction.

doomsday clock, 1In 1947, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists envisioned a “Doomsday Clock”, a symbolic clock face, to dramatize the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.  Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the “time” has varied from seventeen minutes ’til with the 1995 collapse of the Soviet Union, to two minutes before midnight with “Operation Ivy”, the first American thermonuclear detonation, in 1952.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  Yet the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to worldwide nuclear extermination.

All that needs to be known about Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista, is that he fled office with $300,000,000 US, on December 31, 1958.  The triumphant rebel columns streaming out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, were quick to establish themselves in power.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro dismissed the need for elections, proclaiming his government to be a “direct democracy”.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports arenas, in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of Batista supporters were executed or imprisoned as Castro’s “Revolutionary Socialist State” purged itself of the former regime.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he’d personally order a retrial.

Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, described the Ambassadorship as “the second most important man,” in Cuba.  Now, the Castro administration distanced itself from the US, adopting an increasingly leftist posture and seizing US controlled oil installations, banks and sugar refineries.  By October 1960 the government had “nationalized” 166 such businesses, including Coca Cola and Sears, Roebuck.

bay-of-pigsSince the Presidency of James Monroe, US foreign policy has opposed outside intervention in the American hemisphere.  The government was not about to permit a communist state, 90 miles from its shore.

A secret operation to overthrow the Cuban government was conceived and initiated by the Eisenhower administration, and put into motion in April 1961.  1,400 CIA backed Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón“ (Bay of Pigs), intending to overthrow the communist government.

The effort was doomed to failure.  The New York Times had been reporting on the “secret invasion”, for a month.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration sought other means of removing communists from power.  “Operation Mongoose” sought to embarrass and discredit Castro personally, with tactics ranging from print & radio propaganda, to hallucinogenic chemical-laced cigars.  Someone even had the hare-brained idea of lining Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, to make his beard fall out.

The Communist government consolidated power, taking control of trade unions, jailing opponents, suppressing civil liberties, and sharply limiting freedom of speech and of the press. Secretary of State Christian Herter described Castro’s single-party political system as “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the American President was impotent and indecisive.  One Soviet adviser described Kennedy as “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations… too intelligent and too weak.”

Cuban and the Soviet officials reached a secret arms agreement in July, 1962.   By late summer, American intelligence discovered Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 jet bombers in Cuba.

Worse yet, construction had begun on several missile sites.  On October 14, ultra-high-altitude Lockheed U–2R reconnaissance aircraft photographs revealed the presence of medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missile sites under construction in Cuba.

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A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s

President Kennedy warned of the “gravest consequences” resulting from the introduction of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, while Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid was purely defensive. U-2 photographs gave lie to Gromyko’s protestations.  Images taken on the 17th revealed the presence of 16-32 missiles.

The administration went to great lengths to portray “business as usual”, while behind the scenes, policy makers wrangled over options from quarantine to tactical air strike to outright military invasion.  President Kennedy himself suddenly departed a political event in Chicago, his aids concocting a “cold” diagnosis to explain his sudden absence.

Cuban Missile Crisis, coldIn a televised speech on October 22, Kennedy publicly revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and called for their removal.  A naval quarantine would close off the island, Kennedy said, until Soviet leaders agreed dismantle missile sites, and to make certain that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

From the Soviet perspective, Cuba was a small ally behind enemy lines, the same situation the Americans experienced, in West Berlin.  Besides, the Americans had missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Kruschev had gambled and lost, that he could “[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them”.

The President warned “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  There was no mistaking American intent.

Kruschev replied, “I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace…”

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba
1962 — This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soviet nuclear submarines moved in response to the quarantine, as Cuban waters became the scene of a tense, naval standoff.

Kruschev responded on the 24th, describing the US blockade as an act of aggression.  Castro urged the Soviet leader to initiate a nuclear first strike, should the Americans invade his island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a “Defense Readiness Condition” status of DEFCON 3.  The United States Air Force was now ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

U-2 photographs of the 25th & 26th showed accelerated construction on the island, with several silos approaching operational readiness.  US air forces were placed at DEFCON 2.  War involving Strategic Air Command, was now “imminent”.

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On day twelve of the standoff, October 27, an American U-2 was shot out of the sky by a Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile.  The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson Jr, was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross in history, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Anderson’s was the only combat death of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he wasn’t alone.  Three reconnaissance-variant Stratojets crashed between September 27 and November 11, killing 11 airmen.  Seven more died on October 23, when their C-135B Stratolifter stalled and crashed delivering ammunition to the Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay.

The most dangerous phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Cuban missiles would be removed in exchange for an American pledge not to invade.  In a secret “side deal”, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American “Jupiter” missiles, from Turkey.

Cuban Missile Crisis, mushroom cloud

The most dangerous thirteen days in world history, had passed.  The American quarantine would continue until November 20, when the Soviets agreed to remove their bombers.  The Americans removed Turkish missiles, the following April.

Throughout this period, a blizzard of communications both direct and indirect, were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.  With little to go on but mutual distrust, Kennedy, Kruschev and their aids sought to understand the true intent of their adversary.

If there is no intention,” wrote Kruschev, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

The American and Soviet governments established the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link in 1963, from a mutual desire that we never again, get that close to the brink.  Contrary to popular culture, this “hotline” has no “red phone”, and never did.  The Moscow–Washington hotline was at first a dedicated teletype, replaced by direct-link fax machine in 1986. Since 2008, the Pentagon maintains a secure computer link with the Russian Federation, and messages are exchanged by email.