Friday, 26 October 1962
Friday morning, Khrushchev authored a long, emotional, rambling ten-page letter to President Kennedy with the objective of informing Kennedy that a solution could be worked out. After he emotionally explained why the Soviets chose to support Cuba in their defense against the United States, and implored Kennedy to use his reason, Khrushchev offered this:
Let us therefore display statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its tropps (sic) and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will be obviated. …Mr President, you and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this know will become. 88
This letter was delivered to the American Embassy at Moscow at 4:43 p.m. (9:43 a.m. in Washington) and transmission to the State Department began around 6:00 p.m. Washington time and was completed by 9:00 p.m. (4:00 a.m. Moscow time the following day). The olive branch was extended but it took almost twelve hours to be translated, transmitted, and reach the President.
Meanwhile, U Thant, not aware of the message from Khrushchev or the information that Khrushchev held regarding potential invasion, continued his efforts of diplomacy, this time with Castro. He wrote to Castro on the 26th to advise that Castro “can make a significant contribution to the peace of the world at this present critical juncture by directing that the construction and development of major military facilities and installations in Cuba… be suspended during the period of negotiations which are now under way.”89 U Thant stalled to provide a more stable environment in which to conduct the negotiations.
Late that night, Castro wrote to Khrushchev. In his letter of 26 October, he was convinced that the American invasion was “almost imminent within the next 24 or 72 hours” and that “if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba… that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever… however harsh and terrible the solution would be.”90 This call seemed to be a request to Khrushchev to commit to a nuclear response should the Americans invade. This letter was communicated to Moscow early the next morning.
Cuba represented the unpredictable wild card in the crisis at this point. Castro determined that it would be better to martyr Cuba than to back down from the aggressor. From such a stand-point, no negotiation can occur. At that point, time had expired and a solution had to be found quickly to ensure war did not break out.
Castro, further aggravated the situation by issuing orders to his general staff that, effective Saturday, 27 October, Cuban anti-aircraft batteries were authorized to fire on any breaches of Cuban airspace.91 Castro represented the most dangerous participant in this crisis and this action threatened to upset the tenuous balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. To this point, the Soviets and the Cubans were passively defensive and no shots had been fired.
Ambassador Hare concurred with Ambassador Finletter’s response that removing the Jupiters from Turkey would damage US-Turkish relations as the Turks placed great confidence in the missiles. Hare encouraged solution to this crisis in a manner that would not bring the Turkish missiles into the picture and even presented as a course of action “dismantling of Jupiters…in… relationship to [the] Cuban situation… on a strictly secret basis with the Soviets.”92 Interestingly, this letter, dated 26 October at 6:00 p.m. was not received at the State Department until 10:07 a.m. in Washington the following day.
In Cuba, Soviet General Pliyev had the authority to arm the tactical nuclear weapons and he reported that by the 26th all strategic weapons systems were operational. He did not give the order to arm any of the weapons, but it would only take three and a half hours to arm a missile and fuel it for launch.93
Friday morning, John Scali, Washington correspondent for ABC News, received a call from Feklisov asking for an urgent meeting. The two met near the Willard Hotel at 1:30 p.m. Scali told Feklisov that a landing in Cuba was imminent, and an offer was proposed. Though accounts differ as to which made the proposal, a three point plan was discussed: 1) Soviet missiles would be dismantled under UN supervision; 2) Castro would promise not to accept any more weapons; and 3) US would pledge not to invade Cuba.94
By that afternoon, Roger Hilsman was aware of the encounter and assumed that it was a backchannel message to the United States. He and Secretary Rusk agreed that if this were a message, then quick response was required to ensure the Soviets knew the United States’ government was considering it seriously.
Scali and Feklisov met for the second time that day at 7:30 p.m. (2:30 a.m. in Moscow on the 27th) near the Soviet embassy. Scali relayed that there were “real possibilities in this [proposal]” and that this could be worked out in the UN. Feklisov added a caveat about the UN watching US troop withdrawals, but Scali replied that he was not in a position to comment on this aspect.95
This may have been the most dangerous time of the conflict. The United States wanted to ensure that the Soviets were convinced that the US was willing to go to war over this issue, but would not do so recklessly. Scali relayed to Feklisov that the United States could agree to the Soviet demand that it pledge not to invade Cuba, but the missiles had to be removed. This represented the first time the two proposals from opposing sides were joined.
The next morning, the Executive Committee learned of the details of this second meeting as the 27 October letter from Khrushchev arrived at the State Department.