Have you ever imagined what your life would have been like today if you had done certain things differently in the past? Without doubt, right? We often find ourselves asking the big old ‘What If’ question. A direct outcome of this line of thought is the genre of ‘alternate history’, where writers imagine a world that diverges at some point in real history. There are numerous books, movies and series out there taking significant events in world history and conjuring up alternative timelines. One such book, Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois takes up the Cuban Missile Crisis. But before we delve into the alternate history of ‘what if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a full-scale war?’ it is important to know what actually went down up till 1962.
The US and the Soviet Union found themselves in a political and military standoff in October 1962, over installation of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The Cuban Missile Crisis refers to this standoff that, although, lasted for only thirteen days, had the potential to turn into World War III. Cuba got caught between the ongoing Cold War when Fidel Castro severed previously built relations with the US and took up Soviet Union on its offer to support Cuba in 1959. The US imposed a trade embargo on Cuban sugar and tobacco, and subsequently cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. This meant Cuba looked to the Soviet Union as a market, who were more than obliged to supply them with oil and ammunition.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave the ‘go ahead’ to a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs, to overthrow communism. However, things didn’t go as planned, and the uprising was suppressed by the Cuban troops. Nonetheless, this set the Cuban Missile Crisis into motion. Castro requested the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to place nuclear missiles on Cuba to protect the country from further attacks. Khrushchev agreed as he knew that the US too had missiles installed in Turkey pointed towards the Soviet Union, and this was a way to level the playing field. Thus, the construction of missile launch facilities started in July 1962. Nuclear missiles in Cuba meant that some of the biggest cities of the US, including Washington DC and New York, were well within the missile range.
Luckily for the US, an American spy plane passing over Cuba photographed a Soviet ballistic missile being assembled. President Kennedy was apprised of the situation on October 16, 1962; Day 1 of the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis. A special advisory group was formed, popularly known as ExComm, which debated the possible outcomes of this situation. Any kind of unprovoked attack and invasion would only escalate the problem, leading to the nuclear war that everyone was wary of in the first place. After a week’s deliberations, it was decided that a naval blockade was the best option; this prevented further missiles from reaching Cuba, and bought the US the time to negotiate with the Soviet Union. On October 22, Americans were made aware of the presence of the missiles and the decision to form a ‘quarantine zone’ around the island. President Kennedy also made it clear that the US was equipped to use military force if deemed necessary to neutralise the threat. The possibility of a nuclear war escalated when, on October 24, Soviet ships bound for Cuba came ‘bow-to-bow’ with the US Navy vessels and a standoff followed through the week.
This is where we enter the universe of alternate history. President Kennedy was under pressure from the ExComm to initiate a military action after an American U2 plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27. The US Air Force troops were ordered to be on DefCon-2 (highest level it had reached). American bombers were in the air, carrying nuclear weapons and ready to launch at any given moment. On the other side, a Soviet submarine was carrying a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead, which would have sunk an aircraft carrier and nearby ships if deployed. Now, if President Kennedy followed the military’s advice and bombed Cuba, or if the Soviet submarine’s captain gave in to his political officer’s urge to fire the warhead, the Cuban Missile Crisis would have turned into a full-scale war.
The US plans for bombing and invading Cuba were based on the estimates that there were around 12,000 Soviet forces on the island and no tactical nuclear weapons. And even with these figures, they projected 18,500 casualties in the first ten days of the invasion. However, they had grossly underestimated the numbers; there were 42,000 Soviet troops stationed, along with 92 short-range nukes that were sent to Cuba and were authorised for use in the event of an attack. Thus, if the US tried to invade Cuba, the Soviets would have destroyed all of the troops and the marines. At this point, the only way forward would have been a full-blown nuclear war; the Cold war turning into a hot-war. The US Air Force troops would retaliate by dropping the nuclear bombs, wiping out most of the missile launchers. On the other hand, the surviving launchers in Cuba would be readied to release nuclear warheads on major US cities, the first being Washington DC. Soviet Union would eventually be obliterated by numerous US Jupiter missiles. And even though the US dominated the nuclear space, there would still be large areas of Europe and North America lying in ruins as well, with uncountable deaths.
Fortunately, it did not go down as such. Despite the enormous tension, the two superpowers found a way out of the impasse. They recognised that there are no winners in a nuclear war. Letters were exchanged between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, and a deal was negotiated. On October 28, 1962 (Day 13), the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, and the US promised to not invade Cuba. In a separate private negotiation, the US also settled to dismantle the US missiles in Turkey. Both countries, and the world, were able to avert a nuclear war and come out of this without too much loss. In the words of the then US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, “We were eyeball-to-eyeball and the other fellow just blinked”.
- “Cuban Missile Crisis”, dated June 10, 2019
- “The Cuban Missile Crisis – How close to nuclear war did we get?” The Week, dated October 28, 2019
- “What could’ve happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis had turned into all-out nuclear war”, dated October 14, 2015
- “If America invaded Cuba in 1962, today we would call it the Cuban Missile Apocalypse”, The National Interest, dated November 22, 2019