The "Eyeball to Eyeball" Myth
"We were eyeball to eyeball--and the other fellow just blinked."--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, October 24, 1962
Dean Rusk's "eyeball to eyeball" quote has long epitomized the essence of the Cuban missile crisis--a High Noon showdown between a cool and youthful president of the United States and an emotional, risk-taking Communist dictator in Moscow. The defining Cold War showdown has even become part of the current presidential election campaign, with Barack Obama emphasizing the importance of talking to America's enemies and the McCain camp pointing to the failed Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in June 1961.
The claim that Soviet missile-carrying ships turned back at the last moment after being confronted by American warships has appeared in many missile crisis books, including Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir Thirteen Days (1968), One Hell of a Gamble by Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko (1997), and Essence of Decision by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow (2nd edition, 1999). It was also the emotional centerpiece of a Hollywood movie on the missile crisis, Thirteen Days (2000). RFK sets the scene in his memoir:
It was now a few minutes after 10:00 o'clock. Secretary McNamara announced that two Russian ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, were within a few miles of our quarantine barrier. The interception of both ships would probably be before noon Washington time. Indeed, the expectation was that at least one of the vessels would be stopped and boarded between 10:30 and 11:00 o'clock.
In fact, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had ordered his missile-carrying ships to turn more than 24 hours before, on the morning of October 23, soon after Kennedy went on nationwide television to announce the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A record of Khrushchev’s decision is available in the minutes of a Soviet Communist party presidium meeting. [An English translation is available here.] The notes refer to an order from Khrushchev for the return of “the ships that did not arrive yet,” drawing agreement from other presidium members. “Everyone says that is correct.”
According to Soviet shipping records, Khrushchev permitted five ships already close to Cuba to proceed to the island. Since these ships were only a few hours’ sailing time from the closest Cuban port, there was little risk that they would be intercepted by U.S. warships. The ships included the Aleksandrovsk, which was carrying nuclear warheads to Cuba, and its escort ship, the Almatyevsk, which arrived at the port of La Isabela at dawn on October 23. The three other ships were the Divnogorsk, the Dubno, and the Nikolaevsk. The Soviet leader also ordered four submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes to remain in the vicinity of the quarantine line. Ships and oil tankers carrying non-military equipment were authorized to proceed to Cuba.
According to Soviet records, the orders to 16 missile-carrying ships to reverse course went out early in the morning of October 23. This is consistent with a later reconstruction of the movement of Soviet ships by the U.S. Navy and the CIA. A senior U.S. Navy official, Captain Isaac Kidd, noted “for the record” on October 25 that “the Russian ships turned around at 230800A.” The time group is equivalent to 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time in Washington or 10 a.m. Moscow time on October 23.
The Soviet ships closest to the quarantine barrier were the Kimovsk (not the Komiles, as RFK incorrectly stated in his memoirs) and the Yuri Gagarin. According to Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Navy was expecting to make contact with the Kimovsk between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Washington time on October 24. A Navy diagram of the blockade line is available here. The National Security Agency had been receiving preliminary reports of Soviet ships turning around throughout the night, but the evidence was inconclusive, and the agency did not inform Navy Flag Plot of the development until 10:40 a.m. See NSA intercepts here and Navy logs here. When President Kennedy heard the news, he immediately ordered the aircraft carrier Essex not to engage the Soviet ships, and give them time to turn around. The Essex was contacted by sideband radio between 10:45 and 11 a.m.
In fact, both the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin were already more than 500 nautical miles from the blocade line at this point, heading back toward the Soviet Union. One Minute to Midnight is the first book to plot the actual positions of Soviet and U.S. ships on October 23 and 24. See CIA information on the Soviet ships here and U.S. Navy information here.
Even though the ships were later discovered to have been far apart, RFK accurately depicted the mood in the White House on the morning of October 24. At the time, Excomm members were convinced that a confrontation was imminent. There were various conflicting reports about the situation on the blocade line. At 5 p.m. that afternoon, CIA director John McCone dictated a note citing reports that “an intercept had been attempted at 10:35 a.m. with the Kimovsk, and that the ship had turned around when confronted by a Navy vessel.”
Adding to the concern at the White House was the presence of a Soviet submarine in the vicinity of the quarantine line. [See the contemporaneous notes of deputy defense secretary Roswell Gilpatric available here.] The Soviet submarine was a Foxtrot class diesel submarine commanded by Nikolai Shumkov. Its Soviet designation was B-130, and it was given the designation C-18 by the U.S. Navy. (Gilpatric uses the designation N-22, which may refer to a still classified NSA designation.) For details on the sightings of C-18 and other Soviet submarines, see U.S. Navy logs here. According to the Navy records, C-18/B-130 was first spotted at 11:04 a.m. on October 23 (1504Z) but it had evidently been picked up earlier by NSA electronic eavesdropping techniques. The submarine bore the number 945 on its conning tower.
At the request of the Pentagon, the State Department had sent a message to Moscow early on October 24 notifying the Kremlin of their intention to bring Soviet submarines to the surface. The signal consisted of practice depth charges dropped on top of the submarines. Information about the signals was never passed on to the Soviet submariners, who were alarmed to hear depth charges exploding around them. B-130 was eventually brought to the surface by the Essex carrier group.
For more information on the role played by Soviet submarines during the missile crisis, seethis electronic briefing book from the National Security Archive.
More information on the U.S. Naval blocade of Cuba in October 1962, including the drama aboard the Soviet submarines, can be found in One Minute to Midnight, available throughAmazon.com.