An Air Force Lockheed U-2. During the Cold War in the early 1950s, the United States government sought an aircraft to monitor activities in the Soviet Union. Lockheed's Kelly Johnson submitted an unsolicited proposal and promised delivery of a prototype in eight months. Lockheed/AFA Library
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Dragon Lady Down

July 22, 2021

The turning point in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was so named because of the nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union deployed to the island in the late summer and fall of 1962. The crisis started Oct. 14, 1962, with the discovery of the Soviet missiles, and its most intense period ended 13 days later, shortly after the shoot-down of an American U-2 and the death of its pilot. Now, nearly six decades later, newly discovered eyewitness accounts from Soviet officers involved in the shoot down provide a unique and surprising perspective on what is arguably the critical turning point in the whole affair. 

On Oct. 14, a U-2 Dragon Lady surveillance airplane photographed evidence of the Soviet ballistic missiles on the island. From then on, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers would base their decisions on intelligence from U-2 overflights of the island. Ten days later, the Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON (Defense Condition) 2, making Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev believe that the United States was preparing to attack not only the Soviet positions on Cuba but also the Soviet Union itself. That softened Khrushchev’s position in negotiations with Kennedy. 

On Oct. 27, a U-2 plane piloted by Capt. Charles (Chuck) Maultsby lost its way over the North Pole, straying into Soviet airspaces over Chukotka and causing a scare in Washington that the Soviets might mistake that flight as the final preparations before a strike on Soviet territory. That same day, Maj. Rudolf Anderson, piloting another U-2 over Cuba, was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM), adding to the crisis and arguably the most dangerous 24 hours in the history of the world. Anderson was killed, turning a diplomatic crisis into a shooting conflict at risk of escalating into a full-blown nuclear war. 

Maj. Rudolph Anderson was shot down and killed over Cuba during the October 1962 crisis. His regrettable death may have been instrumental in averting a nuclear war. USAF

Neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy wanted a global war, however, and the shoot down drove Kennedy to intensify his efforts to reach a peaceful resolution. He offered Khrushchev a secret deal: He offered to remove American ballistic missiles from Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev removing his ballistic missiles from Cuba. 

This much is well documented in the history books. What is barely known, even today, is that the downing of Anderson’s U-2 was not executed on the orders of the Kremlin, but was instead a sign that Khrushchev was losing control over his troops: Newly released Russian documents show that the U-2 was shot down against explicit orders from Moscow, which had directed Soviet troops in Cuba not to fire at the American airplanes. The shoot down and the fear that it might lead to all-out war suddenly became a key factor in Khrushchev’s decision to accept Kennedy’s offer and end the conflict. 

This is the story of how that happened.

By the morning of Oct. 27, few people in the Cuban leadership—or among the Soviet commanders in Cuba—doubted that an invasion was imminent. The evidence was right there in the sky above Cuba. It came with the noise of U.S. Navy Vought F-8 Crusader aircraft, supersonic fighters that could also be used as bombers and surveillance planes. Since Oct. 23, they had been crisscrossing Cuba on a regular basis, focusing on Soviet ballistic missile sites and military installations.

The unceasing Crusader overflights wracked the nerves of Soviet commanders on the island and lent credibility to Castro’s panicky claims that the Americans were coming. “Every hour there were dozens of planes overhead,” recalled Gen. Leonid Garbuz, the deputy commander of the Soviet troops in charge of combat readiness. “The roar of motors shook the air. The atmosphere was that of a mass airstrike with bombs dropping. The Americans were conducting a psychic attack.” Psychological warfare was not part of the American strategy, but the American commanders did hope the Soviets would become so used to American planes in the air that when the time came for an airstrike they would be caught off guard, unable to distinguish bombers from reconnaissance aircraft.

On the evening of Oct. 26, Garbuz was summoned by his commanding officer, Gen. Issa Pliev, a former cavalryman and a hero of World War II, who was personally trusted by Khrushchev. The discussion, remembered Garbuz, focused on “what they [the Americans] had uncovered and what they hadn’t … because tomorrow they could be fired upon and we’d have to decide what to remove and what to replace.” The generals concluded that many of the ballistic missile sites had been discovered by the Americans. “And we reported to Moscow—I wrote it in my own hand rather quickly—that our opponent had managed to uncover some strategic areas,” said Garbuz. 

Pliev sent a telegram drafted by Garbuz to Moscow reporting that: “A decision has been made to use all available anti-aircraft resources in case of a strike against our sites by American aviation.” Khrushchev and Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet minister of defense, would approve the decision later that day, but it had gone into effect immediately. 

Ready and Waiting

The Soviet troops on Cuba spent the night of Oct. 26 getting ready for the attack they expected to begin at any minute. It did not come. “The day dawned, but it was quiet, and the radar found no targets in the sky,” recalled Major Nikolai Serovoi, an officer on duty at the headquarters of the 27th anti-aircraft division in Camagüey in central Cuba. “But everyone’s nerves were strained to the breaking point, and people were weary after a sleepless night,” said Serovoi.

Around 8:00 a.m. on Oct. 27, with tropical rain picking up and the worsening weather making an attack less likely, Pliev beat a retreat, issuing a new order to his troops, Serovoi said. “We were ordered to go on duty in smaller units and fire only in case of direct enemy attack.” The order marked the start of a second consecutive 24-hour shift for Serovoi, who remained at his post. 

An hour later, radar in Camagüey located a target—an airplane approaching the eastern tip of the island at an altitude of more than 20 kilometers. The plane was piloted by U.S. Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson of the  4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. He had taken off in his Lockheed U-2F from McCoy Air Force Base in Florida and was picked up by Soviet radar at 9:12 a.m. Havana time, entering Cuban airspace over Cayo Coco Island in central Cuba. 

An early image of missile bases under construction at San Cristobal, Cuba, shown to President John Kennedy on the morning of Oct. 16, 1962. CIA/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

At 9:20 Anderson was already flying over the headquarters of the Soviet air defense division in Camagüey. He then flew south to the town of Manzanillo, turning east toward Santiago de Cuba and passing over Guantanamo Naval Base before making a sharp eastward turn and heading over the northern shore toward Banes, a town in Holguin province. Anderson spent more than an hour in Cuban airspace, maintaining radio silence despite Soviet radio signals that asked him to identify himself. His cameras clicked the whole time, capturing new pictures of Soviet missile sites. 

The Soviet officers knew exactly what was going on: The positions they had built with such effort were being exposed. At the command post of the 27th Anti-Aircraft Division in Camagüey, Serovoi was besieged with demands from regimental commanders to allow them to shoot down the intruder. Eager to see action at last, they readied their Dvina S-75 surface-to-air missiles, the same sort that shot down Capt. Francis Gary Powers in May 1960 over Russia.  

Serovoi called Pliev’s headquarters, located in an underground bunker at the El Chico estate near Havana, where the duty officer was Gen. Stepan Grechko, 52, chief of staff of the Moscow air defense region. Grechko had been dispatched to Cuba to serve as Pliev’s deputy in charge of air defense. Sosnovoi told Grechko: “The unit commanders are insisting that the reconnaissance plane be destroyed.” 

Grechko did not know what to do. Pliev was not around. Struggling with kidney disease and, after a sleepless night, he went to get some rest. Garbuz reached the command post around 10:00 a.m., recalling later that Grechko told him that “a ‘guest’ has been circling around us for more than an hour. I think the order has to be given to shoot down the American plane because it can discover our positions to their fullest extent, and the reconnaissance data will be known to Washington in a few hours.” Both generals knew that Pliev issued a prohibition against shooting at the American planes without his direct orders, but he was out of reach. 

Grechko probably felt that the decision was now up to him, since air defense was his responsibility. After “the radar man said he would go back to Guantanamo in five minutes,” recalled Garbuz, “Grechko said, ‘I have made a decision to shoot him down.’” He added to Garbuz: “I guess we’ll both answer for it.” Garbuz agreed. “We both were responsible,” he admitted decades later. In Camagüey, Serovoi received the order to open fire. 

Precious time had been lost, however, and for a while it looked as if no shots would be fired. The U-2 had disappeared from the radar screens, but the order remained in force. A few minutes later, when the U-2 reappeared after making a turn over the eastern tip of the island and proceeding westward toward Havana, Serovoi’s men were ready. 

A Department of Defense map was used for a televised briefing to the public on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The map shows the range of medium-range (1,100 nautical miles) and intermediate-range (2,200 nautical miles) nuclear missiles based in Cuba. DOD/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

At the SAM launch site near the town of Banas, the commander of the SAM battalion, Maj. Ivan Gerchenov, his chief of staff, Capt. Nikolai Antonets, and Lt. Aleksei Riapenko crammed into the cabin of the R-12 launcher and followed the target on the radar screen. “Destroy the target with a salvo of three!” Grechenov said, as Riapenko later recalled. “I switched all three firing channels to BR mode and pressed the ‘Fire’ button of the first channel.” 

The missile took off from the launch pad. “Then I reported: ‘Target locked in!’ The first missile had already been in flight for nine or 10 seconds when the commander ordered: ‘Fire two!’ I pressed the ‘Fire’ button of the second channel. When the first missile exploded, a cloud appeared on the screens. I reported: ‘One, explosion. Target connected. Target damaged!’ After the explosion of the second missile, the target abruptly began to lose altitude, and I reported: ‘Two, explosion. Target destroyed!’”

Shot Down

The news about the shoot down of Maj. Rudolf Anderson’s U-2 over Cuba reached U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara at the White House in the middle of a meeting of Kennedy’s executive committee, a gathering of his closest advisers. 

“The U-2 was shot down,” McNamara said, interrupting the discussion. 

Kennedy responded in disbelief. “A U-2 was shot down?” His brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert  F. Kennedy, asked if the pilot had been killed. “The pilot’s body is in the plane,” answered Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The plane had been struck by a surface-to-air missile, he reported, evidence that it had been fired by the Soviets, rather than Cubans.

“Well, … this is much [more] of an escalation by them, isn’t it?” the President asked, to which McNamara responded, “Yes, exactly.” Kennedy was trying to make sense of what had just happened in the context of two letters he’d received from Khrushchev in the prior 24 hours. “How do we explain the effect of this Khrushchev message of last night and their decision [to shoot down an American plane]?” the President asked. McNamara answered: “I do not know how to interpret it.” 

A near miss

Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet minister of defense, reported to Khrushchev on the latest developments in Cuba sometime after 10:45 a.m. Moscow time on Oct. 28. He knew that he had fouled up: His troops had shot down the plane in spite of direct orders not to open fire unless attacked. 

In a terse report, Malinovsky laid out the facts. He began with information about the U-2 overflight, which photographed the “combat disposition of the troops” for 1 hour and 21 minutes. “With the aim of not permitting the photographs to fall into U.S. hands, at 18:20 Moscow time, this aircraft was shot down by two anti-aircraft missiles of the 507th Anti-aircraft Missile Regiment at an altitude of 21,000 meters. The aircraft fell in the vicinity of Antilla; a search has been organized.” 

Malinovsky unequivocally stated that it was his troops who had shot down the plane but gave no assessment of their actions and named no names. In lieu of explanation—if not an excuse for what had happened—Malinovsky added: “On the same day there were eight violations of Cuban airspace by U.S. aircraft.” We do not know what Malinovsky told Khrushchev in private, but this much is clear: In this case, the Soviet military literally managed to get away with murder. Malinovsky’s message to Pliev, who had lost control of his own deputies and allowed the incident to take place, contained scant criticism despite the gravity of the situation, but signaled a sense of the error. “We believe that you were too hasty in shooting down the U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane,” cabled Malinovsky to Pliev later that day.

The Soviet premier’s aide, Oleg Troianovsky, recalled, “Khrushchev was seriously alarmed by the news that an anti-aircraft missile had been fired on the orders of a middle-rank Soviet commander. He was keenly aware, as were all of us, that in the situation that had arisen, when nerves were strained to the breaking point, a single spark might cause an explosion.” 

President John Kennedy, right, meets in the Oval Office at the White House with U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, second from right, and reconnaissance pilots who flew the Cuban missions. Third from the left is Maj. Richard Heyser, who took the first photos of the Cuban missiles. CIA

Khrushchev summoned a meeting of the Presidium, the decision-making body of the Communist party. “I have called you all together to take counsel and consider whether you agree with such a decision,” said Khrushchev, concluding his opening remarks. The “decision” was already there: He was simply asking for approval. He had a two-pronged strategy: “If an attack is provoked, we have issued an order to inflict a retaliatory strike.” Then came his “peace” proposal. “We agree to dismantle the missile installations,” he said, according to the terse protocol of the meeting. No dissent was recorded. Khrushchev got his authorization.

Khrushchev dictated a draft of a new letter to Kennedy. In a conciliatory gesture, he wrote: “We have therefore instructed our officers (and those resources, as I have already informed you, are in the hands of Soviet officers) to take appropriate measures to stop building the aforementioned installations, to dismantle them, and return them to the Soviet Union,” he wrote. 

The most dangerous stage of the crisis was effectively over. Maj. Rudolph Anderson’s death was not without purpose. It may have helped prevent a nuclear war.                             

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of History and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. A leading authority on Eastern Europe, he has published extensively on the history of the Cold War.