This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
“The first day of the World Crisis!” was how British prime minister Harold Macmillan described 22 October 1962 in his diary.
That evening, in a televised speech from the White House, President John F Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, and that the United States would impose a naval blockade to help remove them.
The Cuban missile crisis, as it is called in the West, is generally regarded as the closest we have come to thermo-nuclear war. Indeed, more recent revelations about the events of October 1962 have convinced many historians that the crisis was more dangerous than was thought at the time, or for many years afterwards.
The missile crisis marked the climax of the Cold War.
Had all-out nuclear war occurred, it would have brought about the deaths of billions of people. Indeed, the cataclysmic environmental consequences could well have triggered what scientists later termed a ‘nuclear winter’, in which human life itself could have been extinguished in the northern hemisphere.
In 1962, the UK was one of only three states with operational nuclear weapons, and could target the USSR with at least as many as the Soviets could target the US.
It was also host to a significant number of American nuclear-armed bombers and submarines. In political and military terms, Britain was pivotal to Nato, and to a strategy that embraced willingness to use nuclear weapons in response to Soviet attack.
Macmillan’s depiction of a world crisis conveys the global scope and potential consequences of events. Yet much of the study of the crisis continues to focus on the Soviet–US confrontation.
What role did Britain play? Peter Thorneycroft, Macmillan’s defence secretary, later observed that “we were all bystanders”.
Yet Britain’s role should be set in the context of a web of institutional (and personal) transatlantic relations that underpinned diplomatic, military and intelligence co-operation.
The political and personal relations between the prime minister and the president stood at the apex of these relationships.
During the crisis, Macmillan received regular phone calls from Kennedy. Yet the issue of how far Britain was consulted fuelled debate about the UK–USA ‘special relationship’.
While questions remain about who knew what, and when, British intelligence officials visiting Washington were briefed by the CIA on 19 October, three days after the president was told.
On Sunday 21 October, the British ambassador to Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, a personal friend of Kennedy, was invited to the White House for lunch. Kennedy explained there were two options: airstrikes followed by a blockade, or a blockade. Ormsby-Gore was asked how he would respond.
By then the president had already decided not to launch a military attack at this time, but to impose a naval quarantine as a first step. The UK diplomat’s answers resonated with Kennedy’s decisions. The ambassador also counselled against an invasion.
Later in the week, the blockade came into effect, and Soviet ships stopped or turned around, though work on the missiles continued.
Kennedy spoke to Macmillan and explained that an invasion of Cuba risked Soviet retaliation action against Berlin. “What’s your judgement?” he asked.
Two days earlier, Macmillan’s initial response – like Kennedy’s – to the discovery of the missiles had been to use force. Now, he duly considered the ‘$64,000 question’ and wrote the following day to advise against military intervention.
The two premiers each worried that Soviet action in Cuba might be directed towards West Berlin.
A year earlier, confrontation at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie appeared close to sparking military action, and some observers maintain that the zeitgeist of October 1961 was more hazardous than in the following year.
Kennedy had taken a close interest in contingency planning for a military response over Berlin, and in October 1961 reviewed the option of a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union.
Yet in October 1962, he decided on a course of action, without consulting his allies, which had potentially perilous consequences for European security.
The day after Ormsby-Gore’s White House lunch, US emissaries arrived in London, Paris, Bonn and Ottawa, bearing photographs of the missiles. America’s Nato allies duly backed Washington’s actions, just as their Latin-American allies supported the blockade.
The Organisation of American States’ endorsement of the quarantine on 23 October provided Washington with a legal justification for American warships stopping and, if need be attacking, Soviet vessels.
The British government had a very different view. Before the crisis, the issue of trade and shipping with Cuba had generated antagonism between London and Washington.
The suggestion that trade with Cuba should be restricted, for example, was dismissed by the prime minister, who told his foreign secretary, Lord Home, on 1 October: “There is no reason for us to help the Americans on Cuba.”
Three weeks later, the missile crisis presented a different and dramatic context.
Nevertheless, the British government’s legal officers – the lord chancellor, the attorney-general, the solicitor-general and the Foreign Office’s legal adviser – were unanimous that the American blockade was illegal under international law.
The British government backed American action and made this clear in the UN Security Council on 24 October.
The issue of legality was circumnavigated and, in the House of Commons, Macmillan declared that this was not “the moment to go into the niceties of international law”, leaving the Foreign Office discreetly to convey the government’s real views to Washington.
In Parliament, the Labour Party, under Hugh Gaitskell, also supported Kennedy, though it focused on lack of consultation, which was potentially damaging to Macmillan’s projection of a special relationship with Kennedy.
Gaitskell, who was shown the photographs of the missiles in the house of the CIA’s London station chief, nevertheless remained drawn to the symmetry of a trade with US nuclear missiles in Turkey.
The crisis presented opportunities for British diplomacy, including mobilising support for the US in the UN and among European and Commonwealth allies.
One of the challenges was to judge where and when British initiatives might help without dividing the Atlantic alliance. In London, Yevgeny Ivanov (later to feature in the Profumo affair), who was known by MI5 as a Soviet intelligence officer, made secret approaches to invite a British diplomatic initiative.
Lord Home afterwards suggested the aim was “to test our resolve and lay a bait to our vanity”. In his memoirs, Macmillan wrote of “the frightful desire to do something”, and the idea of a summit in which Britain would play a key role was floated with Washington.
Ormsby-Gore actively sought to undermine London’s initiative by telling Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that the president should inform the prime minister this was not acceptable.
Washington needed little persuading. Kennedy did not show much enthusiasm for Macmillan’s idea of immobilising the 60 Thor nuclear missiles in the UK (deployed under dual UK–US control), as a quid pro quo for the missiles in Cuba.
This was despite – or rather, because of – Kennedy’s focus on trading 45 nuclear missiles under Nato auspices in Turkey and Italy. As the crisis escalated, Khrushchev publicly demanded a Turkish quid pro quo to remove his missiles from Cuba.
Ormsby-Gore has been credited with various contributions, including persuading Kennedy to move the blockade line and to publish the photographs of the missiles. Archival research suggests otherwise.
For many, though, the British provided a significant contribution with the espionage of Oleg Penkovsky.
From April 1961 until the autumn of 1962, Penkovsky spied from within Soviet military intelligence in a joint operation run by the CIA and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), which had operational responsibility in Moscow.
By the time he was arrested on 22 October, Penkovsky had provided a considerable amount of military intelligence, though this did not extend to the deployments in Cuba.
His information was, however, of value to US photo-analysts in indentifying the missiles and in helping assessments of their state of readiness. Many officials and historians believe this was decisive in Kennedy’s actions, though others contest its significance.
The Cuban missile crisis reached its climax on 27 October. Soviet surface-to-air missiles shot down a U-2 spy plane, and American warships were dropping explosive devices on Soviet submarines to force them to surface.
Macmillan had argued against mobilising Nato, and even at the height of the crisis, RAF Bomber Command’s V-bombers were not sent to their dispersal airfields. Macmillan wanted to avoid obtrusive preparations, even though 59 Thor missiles were ready and could have been launched in under 15 minutes (as could those V-bombers on Quick Reaction Alert).
America stood mobilised for nuclear war. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were prepared, US Polaris submarines (including a fleet from Holy Loch in Scotland) were ‘flushed’, and the Strategic Air Command moved to the unprecedented and unrepeated state of Defcon-2, with over 60 B-52 strategic bombers airborne at ‘fail safe’, waiting for the go-codes.
Yet although the world was closer to the brink than ever before, Kennedy’s defence secretary, Robert McNamara, recalled that he never discussed with the president what to do in the event of a nuclear attack from Cuba.
Nor did Kennedy discuss nuclear preparations or contingencies with Macmillan.
Historians now have reason to believe that the most likely use of nuclear weapons in the Cuban missile crisis would have been ordered by those well down the chain of command.
Though escalation was not inevitable, controlled nuclear responses were most probably illusory.
Thorneycroft’s depiction of the British as “bystanders” might suggest the disposition of the uninvolved. But, had nuclear war broken out in October 1962, the UK would have been America’s principal ally and one of the Soviet Union’s more immediate targets.
The crisis ended with Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the missiles and Kennedy’s assurances not to invade Cuba.
Both super-powers were determined to draw back from the brink and willing to make compromises to do so. Kennedy secretly agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey and Italy, providing the arrangements remained secret from his Nato allies.
So the crisis that began with Khrushchev deceiving Kennedy ended with Kennedy deceiving his allies, Macmillan included.
Whatever this might tell us about the UK–US special relationship, many would say that, given the risks, it was nevertheless rather a good idea.
Len Scott is professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University and author of The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War: Lessons from History