Death and civil unrest that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis

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“It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the President’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.” That was how then-Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara detailed the devastation he expected the row between the Soviet Union and US to cause. A world ripped apart, battered by nuclear missiles, and hundreds of millions of lives lost. But the world took a collective sigh of relief when the Cuban Missile Crisis was declared officially over on November 20, 1962.

The standoff ended after US President John F. Kennedy ordered the end of the quarantine of Cuba, when his counterpart Nikita Khrushchev, in charge of the Soviet Union, agreed to remove his nation’s missiles from the Caribbean island.

However, although the dispute ended, for the influential characters involved in the landmark episode, their stories had not. What followed for them was civil unrest, a purge, and death.

“Ironically, President Kennedy was assassinated a year after the crisis by a Cuban sympathiser,” Dr Alan Diehl, a former US government whistleblower, and expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis, told “And two years later Premier Khrushchev was purged and replaced by his deputy, [Anastas] Mikoyan.”

Dr Diehl noted that other central figures in the crisis included the likes of Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary, who became key in the Cuban Revolution, and whose face is now commonly associated with rebellion and global insignia in popular culture. He died five years after the crisis concluded when he was assassinated by CIA-led Bolivian troops.

Dr Diehl added: “Only Fidel Castro (Cuba’s Premier) of these leaders would die of natural causes five-plus decades on, after witnessing the failure of his envisioned utopian state.”

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President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just under a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. He had been on a political trip to Dallas, Texas, in a bid to soothe tensions between Democratic Party rivals Ralph Yarborough and Don Yarborough, both liberals, and conservative John Connally.

While travelling in a presidential motorcade in downtown Dallas, Kennedy was shot once in the back, with reports showing the bullet exited via the President’s throat, and once in the head. Just 30 minutes later he was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital, and Lee Harvey Oswald was convicted of murder.

The assassin was himself shot and killed just two days after Kennedy. He was known to be a Cuba supporter, and had previously paid to have flyers made titled “Hands Off Cuba” that he passed out on the streets of New Orleans. While handing out these flyers, he was arrested for disturbing the peace after being involved in a fight with some anti-Castro Cubans. 

Elsewhere, other figures involved in the crisis battled their own issues. 

Khrushchev saw his spell as leader come to a dramatic end after he was ousted from his post after major struggles within his government. His political opponents used his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis against him, and by October 1964 he was ushered out of office amid violent protests.

After learning of the coup, he told his deputy: “I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”

He didn’t suffer the same fate as some of his predecessors and was in fact pensioned off with an apartment in Moscow. His memoirs would eventually be smuggled to the West and published in 1970. A year later, he died of a heart attack.

Guevara’s death came on October 9, 1967, two years after he left Cuba to “foment continental revolutions” across Africa and South America. The first unsuccessful attempt came in Congo-Kinshasa, and then in Bolivia, where he was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces, and then executed.

Castro first publicly acknowledged Guevara’s death on October 15, and proclaimed three days of public mourning. In a eulogy to mark the occasion, Castro said: “If we wish to express what we want the men of future generations to be, we must say: Let them be like Che!

“If we wish to say how we want our children to be educated, we must say without hesitation: We want them to be educated in Che’s spirit! If we want the model of a man, who does not belong to our times but to the future, I say from the depths of my heart that such a model, without a single stain on his conduct, without a single stain on his action, is Che!”

Castro’s life continued until he passed away at the age of 90, on November 25, 2016. During his life reports claim that hundreds of attempts were made on his life, though none were successful. His passing saw Cuba enter nine days of public mourning.

Many celebrate October 29 as the moment the Cuban Missile Crisis officially ended, with historians and civilians hailing Kennedy for his last-moment decision to back-track on his threat to unleash the US’ nuclear arsenal on the Soviet Union.

Disagreements between the two sparring nations had begun escalating in October 1962, when a US military plane was able to retrieve a number of incriminating photographs which showed USSR missiles being built on Cuba.

In response, Kennedy promised swift action, a vow followed up by Khrushchev.

The threat posed was real, and in the moments when Kennedy and Khrushchev were plotting their next moves, unearthed accounts show that Castro had sent a note to the Soviet leader urging him to “use the missiles and to sacrifice Cuba if necessary”.

However, unbeknownst to Castro, an agreement was then put in place, with the Cuban leader reportedly finding out about the US-USSR pact from a friend.

The American Experience added in a profile piece on the Cuban figure: “Castro was infuriated to discover that the Soviet Union would treat Cuba just as the United States had – as an insignificant island in the middle of the Caribbean.”

And while the Soviet and US threats of nuclear apocalypse never materialised, what many are sometimes unaware of is the so-called Second Cuban Missile Crisis, which erupted in the aftermath of the first stand-off being resolved.

Dr Diehl said: “This latter crisis occurred because Khrushchev had also secretly placed dozens of tactical nuclear warheads on the island. Such well-concealed weapons were deployed in anticipation of a potential American invasion.

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“Kennedy’s military chiefs had unanimously recommended such an invasion at the beginning of the original crisis.”

He added: “[Kennedy] states the invasion was initially delayed when the top-secret plans were literally lost after a jet’s baggage compartment came open during a flight.

“That was fortunate because, while the Soviet dictator had famously agreed to remove ‘all offensive weapons’, he initially intended to secretly leave those defensive tactical nuclear weapons in place.

“Khrushchev viewed such weapons as insurance against any future American adventures. And he intended to transfer control of these weapons to the Cuban military.”

Dr Diehl’s new book, Armageddon Angel, which explores the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, will be published in November. Find out more here.

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