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Tactical Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis

In this 2007 article published in the Journal of Cold War Studies titled “The Missiles of November, December, January, February …: The Problem of Acceptable Risk in the Cuban Missile Crisis Settlement,” I dealt with the issue of tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba.

It was the short-range battlefield weapons known as FROGs to NATO and as Lunas to the Soviets that were particularly troublesome. The ExComm was first told about those weapons on October 25 (from a low-level surveillance flight on October 23). And it was those weapons that prompted military planners to request permission to plan for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in invasion planning (a request that was denied). For months–even years, after–intelligence reports noted the presence of these nuclear-capable rockets in Cuba.

What U.S. officials did not know was that at the time the plan was for the Soviets to hand the Lunas over to the Cubans, something that would have made Cuba a nuclear power overnight. But weeks after the 13 days, Khrushchev changed his mind about handing the weapons over. Those extraordinary plans–which, based on his own comments, Kennedy considered inconceivable–were first revealed by Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko in their 1997 book “One Hell of a Gamble”. They provided further details a decade later in Khrushchev’s Cold War. More recently, Sergo Mikoyan’s book (edited by Svetlana Savranskaya) The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November draws from Anastas Mikoyan’s notes of his meetings with Castro and the ultimate decision to reverse course by not handing the missiles over to Castro.

In the article, which formed the basis of parts of the book, I lay out in detail what U.S. officials did and did not know and address the claim–I would go so far as to call it a myth–that American officials had no idea that there were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba.