BERLIN - The world never came so close to nuclear war as it did in late October 1962. The Soviet Union had positioned middle-range rockets on Cuba and was getting ready to fire them. In Washington, American generals were planning to attack the rocket launching sites and invade the island.
As the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis approaches, declassified documents released this week in Germany show that the situation was in fact a great deal more volatile than previously assumed – Fidel Castro was playing his own games that could have inflamed the already dangerous levels of tension between the U.S. and the USSR.
At the high point of the crisis – on Oct. 26, 1962 – the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), West Germany’s foreign intelligence service, learned that Castro was looking to hire former members of the elite Nazi Waffen SS to come to Cuba to train his troops.
He was also looking for former officers in the German paratroopers and technical troops – and was offering to pay them four times more than the average German salary: 1000 Deutsch marks in Cuban currency, and another 1000 marks in the western currency of their choice paid to their European bank accounts.
By the time the BND got this information, four former Waffen SS officers had responded, but only two were confirmed to have reached the island.
According to the BND’s historical investigations director Bodo Hechelhammer, "Evidently, the Cuban revolutionary army had few reservations about hiring staff with a Nazi past as long as it served their objectives."
Far-right arms dealers
But Castro was not only trying to put the experience of Nazi officers to his own use – he was trying to buy arms from Europe as well. The Cuban government tried to buy 4,000 Belgian-made submachine guns – to be shipped via West Germany -- from an arms-dealing ring linked to far-right extremists.
The BND passed this intelligence on to the West German government, with the message: "Measures implemented since Oct. 25, 1962 will lead to seizure of this arms shipment."
The most probable reason for Castro’s quest was that he wanted to free himself from his total dependency on Soviet arms and military instructors in order to pursue his own agenda.
As the documents released by the BND make clear, the German intelligence service was not only well informed about the Cuban government’s contacts in Europe, but thanks to various highly-efficient sources in the Caribbean it had a surprising amount of accurate information about military activity in Cuba.
No later than June 1962, BND analysts had figured out that armed forces in Cuba were apparently coming away from a defensive stance and gearing up for an offensive one, and they identified sites where rockets could potentially be positioned.
During the same period, according to the declassified files, the CIA was working on the assumption that arms in Cuba were conventional – not nuclear – weapons. On Sept. 12, 1962 the BND informed West Germany‘s federal chancellery that since July 15 some 15 Soviet ships had brought 5,000 soldiers, mostly technicians and trainers, to Cuba.
Nine days later, it sent the information through that "by the end of November rocket-launching sites on Cuba will be ready for operation."
Between the end of August and mid-October, CIA surveillance flights had been suspended due to technical reasons and bad weather, and not a single U-2 spy plane had been able to fly over the Caribbean island.
In view of this, additional credibility can be given to a comment attributed to top Soviet politician Anastas Mikoyan to the effect that Western governments first learned about nuclear weapons on Cuba through German intelligence.
The information that the BND delivered during the actual crisis – i.e. between the discovery of the rocket launching sites on aerial photos on Oct. 15, President Kennedy’s information on the following day and Nikita Kruschchev’s capitulation 13 days later – doesn’t add significantly to details already known from U.S. files.
It is remarkable to note however how thorough and wide-ranging was the information that the BND got from its own sources. For example, the BND got information on Oct. 31, 1962 from East Berlin that Castro had written a sharply worded letter to Moscow to protest Kruschchev’s capitulation. And that the Cuban leader was refusing to return the 100 or so Soviet nuclear weapons it had.
This intelligence has now been confirmed by documents from another source that also show that the Cuban Missile Crisis was by no means over after Kruschchev’s announcement on Oct. 28, 1962.
The documents were in Anastas Mikoyan’s private possession and were recently published by the National Security Archive, an independent research institute at George Washington University in Washington D.C., to which they had been donated by Mikoyan’s son.
These documents reveal that after getting Castro’s letter, Kruschchev ordered Mikoyan to go to Cuba, where he spent nearly three weeks. The material, previously entirely unknown to the public, includes several telegrams and the minutes of a four-hour meeting between Mikoyan, Castro and Che Guevara on Nov. 22, 1962, and shows just how angry Castro was.
He accused his guest of having betrayed Cuba, saying that the Cubans hadn’t wanted the missiles in the first place and had only accepted them to "fulfill our duty to the socialist camp." They had been ready to die in a nuclear war and had believed that the Soviet Union would "do the same for us."
Castro blamed the Americans' discovery of the launch sites on the Soviets. Trying to calm him down, Mikoyan admitted that the officers on site had disobeyed Comrade Khrushchev’s explicit orders to work on them at night only, in the cover of darkness.
Castro’s main interest, however, was in keeping the Soviet nuclear weapons on the island. Although when he officially lifted the naval blockade on Nov. 20, 1962, President Kennedy had stated that there were no more nuclear warheads on Cuba, in actual fact, General Issa Pliyev who led the Soviet Ground Forces in Cuba still had the authorization to use the nuclear weapons present on Cuba in the event of a U.S. invasion of Soviet positions.
Castro was now demanding that the 100 Soviet nuclear bombs be turned over to Cuba, allowing his regime to become the first nuclear power in Latin America. The Soviets were not going to abide, and they considered Castro to be unpredictable.
To get out of it, Mikoyan made up a non-existent law to the effect that Soviet nuclear weapons could not be turned over to other states. Castro ended up giving in so as not to jeopardize support from Moscow. And thus ended the second Cuban Missile Crisis.