The Charlotte News

Sunday, October 24, 1937


Site Ed. Note: Meetings of the U.N. Security Council had begun the previous evening, October 23, 1962, with a lengthy speech by Ambassador Zorin of the Soviet Union, condemning the blockade, followed on October 24 by charges of falsehood by the U.S. in an attempt to use the blockade as a cover for an invasion plan. Speeches by the British Ambassador and by Adlai Stevenson condemning the Soviet Union and urging removal of the missiles at once would also occur this date, the seventeenth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations at San Francisco. Zorin stated he would veto a proposed resolution by Stevenson for dismantling the missiles under U.N. oversight; the Cuban Ambassador stoutly refused any cooperation with U.N. inspection. After the meeting, Stevenson asserted in a press conference that it was now obvious that the Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos in his speech before the General Assembly on October 8 essentially admitted the presence of the missiles when he said: "We have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves. We have, indeed, our inevitable weapons, weapons which we would have preferred not to acquire and which we do not wish to employ." In response to the requests of forty smaller member nations, Secretary General U Thant was considering calling publicly, during an evening session, for a cooling period between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In response to a brief letter from President Kennedy on the evening of October 23 asking Premier Khrushchev not to do anything which would cause the situation with respect to Cuba to spiral out of control and therefore to respect the quarantine while the matter was being raised in the U.N. Security Council, Khrushchev responded on October 24 emotionally, heatedly denouncing the quarantine as instead an ultimatum, "banditry", "the folly of degenerate imperialism", a violation of international law, done for the purpose of politics in the mid-term elections, done out of "hatred" for the Cuban people and its government, concluding with these two ominous paragraphs, all but threatening nuclear conflict in the end and indicating that the quarantine line would not be respected:

Therefore, Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you--the United States--you would reject such an attempt. And we also say--no.

The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island. Our instructions to Soviet mariners are to observe strictly the universally accepted norms of navigation in international waters and not to retreat one step from them. And if the American side violates these rules, it must realize what responsibility will rest upon it in that case. Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.

The 10:00 a.m. EXCOMM meeting this date consisted of a briefing on preparedness of air defense and the quarantine line which commenced effectiveness as the meeting began.

Secretary McNamara presented the requested photographs of air defense preparedness in the Southeast, showing that planes were overly dispersed among the airfields and that steps were being taken to rectify the situation.

A discussion then took place regarding the presence of a Soviet submarine between the first two ships approaching the quarantine line, the Gagarin and Kimovsk, the Gagarin, by its manifest, appearing to carry offensive weapons, and so likewise in all probability, by its seven-foot hatches indicative of large cargo, the Kimovsk. The Kimovsk was 30 to 50 miles ahead of the Gagarin. The submarine was traveling 20 to 30 miles ahead of the Kimovsk and would thus reach the line first, by late afternoon or early evening. The procedure to surface the submarine would be to issue sonar signals and to launch practice depth charges which would not damage the sub, as a warning for it to surface. The Soviets had been alerted to this procedure so that the submarine captain would understand that there was no attempt to sink the sub.

Later in the day, Robert Kennedy noted that the President at this point in the discussion became visibly concerned, placing his hand to his face and staring directly at his brother, his eyes "tense, almost gray".

The President expressed his tension by inquiring as to when and under what conditions the submarine would be attacked: would it occur only after an attack on our pursuing destroyer, or in the event that the sub would take an aggressive action to assist the two approaching merchant vessels? The President indicated a desire to wait on any action against the submarine, that the first attack should be on a merchant ship, not a sub.

General Taylor responded that there would be no action unless the sub were in a position to attack our destroyer. McNamara added that Naval helicopters would be in position to harass and divert the sub away from the position of the destroyer and then make the intercept, thereby to avoid any clash with our ships, but that this was only a plan and one fraught with "many, many uncertainties".

In the middle of the meeting, at 10:25, C.I.A. Director McCone indicated receipt of a message that some Soviet ships were turning around, but it was unclear whether these were the two ships being tracked or ones merely departing Havana Harbor after delivering cargo before imposition of the quarantine. The President directed a delay of one hour before halting any ship while clarification of this information was obtained.

It was subsequently confirmed that the Gagarin and Kimovsk had in fact turned in the water and were heading away from the quarantine line. Secretary Rusk was then prompted to remark, in one of the emblematic statements of the Crisis, "We were eyeball to eyeball and I believe the other fellow just blinked."

It was too early, however, for celebration. There would still be other ships to come toward the line. The Soviets would continue to deny the existence of missiles in Cuba and insist that the action taken by the United States was illegal and piratical.

The Crisis had just relaxed a bit.

It was far from over, and indeed would still face its most problematic confrontations.

Was the confrontation and backing down one merely to relax the United States into complacency, or to buy time while more of the missile sites continued toward operational status? Was there merely a kind of yellow fever on board the two ships in question?

As an aside, whether the fact of an earlier action by the Soviet Union, as reported in The News editorial column of February 12, 1940, had, either strategically in terms of asserting through the language barrier simple communications or somehow mystically through the barrier gauze of time and the lost eyes of those demised as soldiers, sailors, and civilians within the horrors of earlier warfare, anything to do with the fact that the first merchant ship to approach the quarantine line was the Kimovsk, we don’t propose to know. But, it being one of those interesting little coincidental sounds of history, we would be remiss at least not to point it out to you, not forgetting that Joseph P. Kennedy had, before immediately becoming Ambassador to Great Britain in spring, 1938, served admirably for two years as head of the National Maritime Commission.

The primary observation, incidentally, as reported by John Hughes of Defense Intelligence, which confirmed in hindsight the presence of missiles on board ships heading for Cuba, as observed during routine naval reconnaissance during September, 1962, was the fact that they rode high out of the water, indicating light cargo, which, in turn, with the presence of large hatches, suggested missiles. Unfortunately, however, no one apparently detected this intelligence until the U-2 flight by SAC on October 14 showed the installations in progress on the island, causing a retrospective analysis of the naval reports.

So, we might ask, did CIA analysts flub it during September? Or, was it deliberate, to cause the Administration publicly to commit to a position from which it could not then back down without complete loss of credibility, so either to provoke a confrontation in Cuba to make up for the Bay of Pigs or once and for all cripple the Kennedy White House, paving the way for Congressional response to Cuba, and even the potential for impeachment of the President? Was it political? Again, we leave it to your better judgment to discern.

… Ay, matey. But pirates we were, and pirates we’ll be: and ‘til the very Bitter End of Time itself, with 'oles in our shoes, 'eaving on the Frozen Lake of Fire, be it necessary.

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