Much of the history surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis investigates the de-escalation of a potentially apocalyptic scenario. Yet, unknown to many, a groundbreaking event occurred in the missile community in October 1962—the activation of the first solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system. Indeed, as the United States postured for a potential nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union, Strategic Air Command (SAC) activated its “Ace in the Hole,” the Minuteman ICBM. Though the minuteman holds the spotlight in missile history during this period, our forces at F. E. Warren Air Force Base worked tirelessly throughout October, just in case President John F. Kennedy deemed it necessary to launch Atlas missiles.
While mistrust between the United States and Soviet Union emerged shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when the establishment of a communist regime was deemed a direct threat to capitalism, and thus the United States of America, the two nations remained allies until shortly after World War II. However, wariness between the two lingered beforehand, as Soviet communism and American capitalism not only clashed economically, but also politically. Regardless, an unfortunate series of phenomena in Europe centered around Soviet geo-political expansion after World War II compelled the United States to implement the Truman Doctrine, which sought to contain the spread of communism in Europe after the war. Thus, the once-allied coalition soon dissolved, and the development of a Cold War based upon nuclear warfare ensued.
While contentious unpredictability set the tone for post-war international relations, the finding of Soviet IL-28 bombers on Cuban soil, as well as the construction of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile sites on the island, engendered a whole new level of hostilities between the United States and Soviet Union. Indeed, the emplacement of Soviet nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba was an unprecedented antagonism instigated by the Soviet Union and is often deemed the height of the Cold War. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 reconnaissance plane photographed the construction of a Soviet SS-4 missile site in Cuba, only 90 miles away from Florida. Two days later, on October 16, the President of the United States convened an advisory group to discuss how the U. S. would proceed with this new threat in the Western Hemisphere. For many, an impending plume of mutually assured nuclear destruction was in the air.
During his televised speech on October 22, President Kennedy denounced the Soviet Union’s actions and detailed his plan to establish a naval quarantine around the island of Cuba to prevent the delivery of additional missiles. The Soviet Union declared this an “act of aggression” and Khrushchev insisted that Soviet ships would continue to make port in Cuba. However, beginning on October 24, Soviet ships acknowledged the U. S. quarantine and ceased to continue towards the island. Yet, amidst negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the immediate threat of a nuclear war prevailed, as three days later, on October 27, a U. S. U-2 spy plane was shot down while conducting reconnaissance over Cuba. Naturally, the world began to brace for a global nuclear war.
While the United States government contemplated a physical invasion of Cuba, in addition to the naval quarantine, another military force was activated—the U. S. ICBM enterprise. Across the country, ICBM squadrons were placed on alert to support the international affair. Mr. Ted Meeker, a missile maintenance technician at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in October 1962, vividly recalls working alternating twelve-hour shifts to ensure the Atlas missiles employed by the 706th Missile Wing were ready to launch at the President’s command. Mr. Meeker, an Airman Second Class at the time, highlighted that he and his fellow Airmen were in “shock” when they heard the news, but understood the mission that needed to be carried out. Yet, Atlas missileers and crewmen were not alone in conducting alert; a new missile appeared from the depths to support the heightened tensions between the United States and Soviet Union.
Compelled by the events in Cuba, Major General Gordon T. Gould, Jr, chief of the Communications Electronics Division at Strategic Air Command (SAC), sought to place the first Minuteman I missiles on alert to support the crisis. General Gould Jr. ordered the installation of nuclear warheads on the missiles immediately following President Kennedy’s televised speech. Despite initial disputes by SAC inspectors, the first Minuteman was placed on alert at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana on October 26.
While much of the military history surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis focuses on the naval quarantine and U-2 reconnaissance airplanes, ICBM operations at F. E. Warren AFB played their role in 1962. Local heroes such as Mr. Ted Meeker and Mr. Jim Widlar, a fellow missile maintenance technician stationed at F. E. Warren AFB during the crisis, conducted their roles flawlessly during a potentially perilous time of discontent between the United States and Soviet Union. Just as they do today, missileers stood ready to execute their mission in 1962. Fortunately, the order to launch nuclear missiles was never given, as the two nations reached an agreement.
President Kennedy and Khrushchev began negotiating a resolution on October 26. Officially, the Soviet Union would dismantle their missile sites in Cuba, as long as the United States promised not to invade the island. However, the Soviet Union also requested the removal of the United States’ Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Officially, the United States could not accept this proposition. Still, U. S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, to further ease tensions by agreeing to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey, a plan that was already in motion by the United States anyway. On October 28, Nikita Khrushchev publically announced that the Soviet Union would remove all ballistic missiles from Cuba. And the world breathed a sigh of relief, as the threat of nuclear war temporarily faded from the limelight.
Kyle Brislan is the Historian for the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base. He is a prior history instructor, published author, and Air Force veteran. His historical expertise includes: military history, early-twentieth century Russian history, and labor history.