Mikoyan’s Mission Impossible in Cuba: new Soviet evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 400, by Svetlana Savranskaya, Anna Melyakova and Amanda Conrad, October 27, 2012.

The Cuban Missile Crisis continued long after the “13 days” celebrated by U.S. media, with U.S. armed forces still on DEFCON 2 and Soviet tactical nuclear weapons still in Cuba, according to new documents posted today by the National Security Archive from the personal archive of the late Sergo Mikoyan. This is the second installment from the Mikoyan Archive donated to the National Security Archive and featured in the new book, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis.  

These documents, which give one an insight into Soviet thinking and decision making at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis are supplemented with transcripts of extraordinary interviews with key Soviet political and military figures, all of whom have passed away. These interviews were generously provided to the National Security Archive by our long-time partner, Sherry Jones of Washington Media Associates. Sherry, a five-time Emmy Award winner, conducted these interviews in the summer of 1992 for the groundbreaking documentary “Cuban Missile Crisis: What the World Didn’t Know,” produced by Sherry Jones for Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News (Washington Media Associates, 1992). [Jump to the interviews].

On October 28, after Khrushchev and Kennedy had just resolved the most acute and public part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet leaders decided to send Anastas Mikoyan to Cuba to settle the crisis between the Soviet Union and their ally, Cuba. Fidel Castro, who was not consulted or even informed about the negotiations between the Soviets and the Americans, sent Khrushchev an angry letter “disagreeing” with the policies of the Soviet government. Khrushchev knew he had a real problem in Cuba-with 42,000 Soviet military personnel armed with tactical nuclear weapons-and an emotional revolutionary leader, who felt betrayed and abandoned by the Kremlin … //

… The documents, published today for the first time, allow us to be a fly on the wall as Mikoyan goes about trying to fulfill his mission-first in New York and then in Havana. We see him as a tough negotiator with John McCloy and Adlai Stevenson, defending the Cuban position, knowing at the same time that Soviet concessions had already been made and that his bargaining position was extremely weak. In Cuba, Mikoyan, faced with Castro’s flat rejection of ground inspections, is trying to find a compromise position with inspections by ambassadors from Latin American countries who are already in Cuba. We see how crucial he was in the dynamics of negotiating the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis-at the very nexus of a three-party negotiation, negotiating with the Cubans, privy to all communications between Moscow and its representatives at the U.N., and in daily contact with the Presidium and Nikita Khrushchev himself.

Mikoyan is also very sensitive to the issue of revolutionary legacy and concerned about the effect of the Soviet withdrawal on Chinese influence in Cuba. He is using every “opportune moment” to criticize the Chinese position and draw comparisons between the Soviet willingness to defend Cuba with the real blood and life of its own soldiers and the Chinese efforts to donate blood by their embassy people in Havana. He suggests that if China was serious about helping Cuba, it could have created a distraction-create a crisis around Taiwan, or take over some Portuguese or British bases, like Hong Kong.

In one of Mikoyan’s most eloquent moments during the Cuban trip, he addresses the officers of the Pliev group of forces to explain the decisions of the Soviet government. This is one of the first Soviet efforts to spin the results of the Cuban Missile Crisis to make it look as if Khrushchev has envisioned it to turn out just exactly as it did, that the main goal-the defense of the Cuban revolution-has been achieved. Mikoyan assures them that their task has been carried out brilliantly and that the correlation of forces in the world is changing in the Soviets’ favor. In this speech, however, there is some real criticism of the way the Soviet military carried out Operation Anadyr. Mikoyan takes a stab at the rocket forces decision makers (Marshall Biryuzov), describing how the Americans discovered the missiles: “they flew the U-2 and discovered that our missiles were sticking up just like they were at a military parade in Red Square. Only in Red Square they would be placed horizontally, and here they were deployed vertically. Apparently, our rocket forces decided to make an offensive gesture to the Americans.”
(full text, a video 24.36 min, Documents 1 to 14 and 7 Interview texts).

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