The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Jupiters 1957-1963

By Philip Nash
University of North Carolina Press, Copyright 1997


The Other Missiles of October highlights an often overlooked but critical component of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis: the American decision in late 1957 to offer to NATO allies medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) armed with nuclear warheads. These Jupiter missiles, which ended up in Italy and Turkey after protracted negotiations with the host nations, played a critical role in shaping Soviet strategic thinking in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. They also marked the first ever deployment by the West of nuclear weapons to the European mainland, and in the case of the missiles deployed to Turkey, had a pivotal role in both the development and eventual resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Deployment of the Jupiters was initially proposed at a December 1957 NATO ministers meeting by the Eisenhower Administration, in part to quell both European and American anxiety about the successful launch by the Soviets in October 1957 of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite. The initial paranoia in the West about Sputnik cannot be overestimated; the Soviets had been the first to put a satellite into orbit, so the assumption followed that the same rockets that fired satellites into space could be made to rain nuclear warheads down on the United States.

Made in the context of Sputnik and the challenge it presented to American military and technological superiority, the MRBM offer was meant to shore up both the NATO alliance and American credibility in a world where the Soviet Union had been the first into space. The idea of placing Jupiter missiles in Europe was therefore as much for domestic political consumption as it was for that of America’s allies. The Other Missiles of October details how doubts were raised about the deployments at high levels in both the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations, including speculation that they might be viewed by the Russians as sheer provocation — but at each stage, the deployment of the missiles was given the go-ahead, due to concerns about American credibility abroad should the deployments be cancelled.

This book highlights a significant variable missing from the American calculus in her deployment of these first-generation ballistic missiles: the Soviet reaction. The missiles in Turkey, sitting just across the Black Sea from the USSR and armed with nuclear warheads, were percieved by the Soviets in precisely the same way that the U.S. would later view the subsequent deployment of missiles to Cuba — as a provocative move providing its adversary with a nuclear first-strike capability, given the very limited warning time they might have if the missiles were ever launched.

The Jupiter missiles were not mobile and were deployed to fixed, unhardened, above-ground sites, leaving them highly vulnerable to attack. This underscored Soviet suspicions that they were intended as a first-strike weapon, since they had so little hope of surviving a pre-emptive attack themselves. The author argues that on balance, the deployment of these U.S. missiles to Turkey was highly provocative in a military sense, and made Soviet Premier Khruschev determined to turn the tables on the Americans at the earliest opportunity. A sustained firestorm of diplomatic protest erupted from the Soviets in the wake of the Turkey deployments, and continued for several months. Ironically, the intensity of these protests, which included veiled threats to America’s NATO allies, helped stiffen American resolve to proceed with the deployment of the Jupiter missiles, despite the doubts raised about them in military and political circles (military analysts cited their vulnerablity and obsolescence, as the first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were coming online, and foreign policy analysts felt it was an unwise provocation that would only heighten Soviet anxiety and deepen Cold War tensions) — because there was a great desire not to be perceived as “caving in” to Soviet pressure.

The book dispells the myth that President Kennedy ordered the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the months before the Cuban Missile Crisis; such an order never occurred. What did happen was that a feasibility study on their removal was ordered, but nothing more occurred prior to October 1962 when the crisis erupted.

While they were rapidly becoming obsolete even as they were finally deployed during 1961-62, the Jupiter missiles in Turkey so disturbed the Soviets that they led — in conjunction with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, an overt American attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro — to the deployment of Soviet medium range ballistic missiles to Cuba. President Kennedy’s imposition of a naval blockade to prevent further strategic weapons from being deployed to Cuba, while not completely effective, communicated to the Soviets the gravity of the situation from the American perspective, and bought time for a diplomatic solution short of all-out nuclear war. Premier Khruschev initially sent Kennedy a letter agreeing to withdraw the missiles if the U.S. would pledge never to invade Cuba. While Kennedy’s military and political advisers debated a response, another message came through the following day, October 27th, demanding a withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Nash takes issue with the prevailing history that Robert Kennedy hit upon the idea of ignoring the second response and answering the first (the so-called Trollope ploy), instead crediting National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy with this idea. Whoever thought of it, it became the official recommendation of Excom, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, and with President Kennedy’s approval, this became the formal U.S. response.

However, the Soviets would not readily accept this solution, and U.S. preparations were rapidly proceeding for a full-scale invasion of Cuba. These preparations included frequent low-altitude reconnaissance flights over Cuba with RF-8 Crusaders to develop comprehensive intelligence on priority targets — particularly the SS-4 ballistic missile sites and the anti-aircraft missile sites defending them.

In the end, it was only a secret side agreement, made just days before air strikes preceding a U.S. invasion of Cuba were to be launched, that averted nuclear war. Under the public terms of the deal, the Soviets were to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, and the U.S. pledged not to invade. However, the secret codicil to the agreement — which the Kennedy Administration made clear to the Russians that they could not divulge, or the deal was off — was that the U.S. Jupiter missiles were to be withdrawn from Turkey, after a delay of six months. This was communicated to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin by Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the night of October 27th. As of October 1962, this required the Soviets to take it on faith that the U.S. would withdraw the Jupiters on schedule.

In the actual event, beginning on April 1, 1963, the Jupiter missiles in both Turkey and Italy began to be dismantled and withdrawn. Later that same year, the Thor missiles that the U.S. had previously deployed to Great Britain were also withdrawn (British Prime Minister Harold MacMillian had offered up the Thors without prompting during the crisis, as a means to encourage the Soviets to back down).

Although preparations for these withdrawals began in the fall of 1962, within weeks of the resolution of the missile crisis, U.S. government officials went to great lengths to deny that there was any connection. The Kennedy Administration justified these withdrawals in part by pointing to the deployment to the Mediterranean of Polaris submarines (the first arriving on station near Turkey on March 31, 1963) which carried submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

Being mobile, the SLBM’s were far less vulnerable to attack than the Jupiters had been. While the full terms of the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis were kept secret for years, they were known in the highest levels of government and military circles at the time — although the part of the deal regarding the missiles in Turkey was kept secret from ExComm members.

While the Soviets had been most concerned about the missiles in Turkey, medium range ballistic missiles in Italy and Britain were also ultimately withdrawn as part of the deal that resolved the Crisis. Publicly, Khruschev had suffered a humiliating defeat in being forced to pull his missiles out of Cuba, but taken in the context of the withdrawal of American missiles from not one, but three Western nations over the next several months, Nash makes it clear that the Soviets got a three-for-one deal, and came out ahead. The host nations for the Jupiter missiles, particularly Turkey, resented not being consulted about what was effectively a missile trade, and there was some rumbling in foreign editorial pages that the U.S. had sold out its allies in pursuit of its own security (Cuban Premier Fidel Castro felt the same way about the Soviets, and remained bitter toward the Russians for years afterward — like the Turks, he had not been consulted about the decision to withdraw the missiles from Cuba). But the greatest factor in the aftermath of the crisis was that nuclear war had been averted, and in the process the world’s first nuclear arms reduction agreement had been concluded. This lessening of tensions helped set the stage for the historic 1963 nuclear test ban treaty, a previously failed effort which Kennedy proposed anew just weeks after the crisis, and which was successfully negotiated and ratified just 10 months later, in August 1963.

This is a fascinating and disturbing book about an overlooked and undervalued aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Jupiter missiles and their contribution to the moment when mankind came closest to nuclear annihilation. The Jupiter missiles played a larger role in the development, and the resolution, of the crisis than history has generally recognized. The Other Missiles makes a strong case that although the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba was a “provocative threat to world peace,” in the words of President Kennedy, it was fundamentally no different than the previous deployment of U.S. Jupiter missiles to Turkey.

A Jupiter Missile at the Air Force Missile Test Center at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida – 1960

The Kennedy Administration successfully managed to avoid any direct comparison of the two deployments throughout the crisis, in part by highlighting the clandestine nature of the Soviet deployments, but many in the Administration privately acknowledged that such a comparison was real and valid, so much so that some members of ExComm speculated that short of war, a missile trade of some kind would very likely be part of the resolution of the crisis. Discussions even contemplated a scenario whereby the U.S. would bomb the missiles and invade Cuba, the Soviets would bomb the missiles in Turkey in response, and the U.S. would acquiese in the loss of the Turkey missiles, thus (hopefully) ending the military exchange. The deal that ended the crisis was logical and pragmatic — but in its aftermath military leaders on both sides had reason to be dissatisified. That may be the single best testament to the deal crafted by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev in the Autumn of 1962, an arms reduction agreement that steered humankind away from its own premature extinction.

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