The Man Who Saved the World

oleg KOn this day in 1962, October 26, Nikita Khrushchev blinked. Four days earlier, US President John F. Kennedy had informed Americans via a nationally televised address that the Soviet Union was placing missiles in Cuba and, as a consequence of this first-strike threat, he was ordering the US Navy to blockade the island until the weaponry was removed. As the superpowers faced off, the world held its breath and prepared for Armageddon.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Colonel Oleg Konstantinovich Penkovsky (above) of the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noe Upravlenie, Chief Intelligence Directorate of Military Intelligence) was arrested and  charged with the high treason. The world was not to know at the time that it was Penkovsky, much more than Khrushchev, Kennedy or their diplomats, who defused the crisis. The Soviets would slink home with tails and rockets between their legs and, two years later, the Politburo “relieved”  Khrushchev of the leadership position. These were the unfolding consequence of Penkovsky’s actions, yet the man who saved the planet by supplying the Americans with top secret information that gave Washington the confidence to resist the Kremlin’s bluff and bluster has remained a largely obscure and overlooked player in the drama.

Penkovsky’s part was scripted by his superior,  the four-star General Ivan Alexandrovich Serov. According to a January, 1998, account in Red Star, the official newspaper of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, he ordered his subordinate to “infiltrate an American and the British intelligence network in Moscow in order to win their trust.” The theory is that Serov prompted Penkovski to supply Washington with the data that revealed the USSR’s nuclear arsenal was nowhere near as ominous as Western intelligence agencies had been led to believe, lacking both missile numbers, range and deliverable throw weight.

Serov died in 1990 in comfort and  prosperity. He was not prosecuted for his war crimes, nor was he charged with any of his other offences against humanity — the looting, for example, of conquered nations’ treasures and mass deportations of Chechens, Balts and Tartars. Nor was he called to account for his wholesale slaughter of Ukrainian nationalists and Polish prisoners of war.

There are other players, too, whose names need to be recalled, amongst them Chief Marshal of Artillery and Rocket  Forces, Sergey Sergeevich, who was demoted in the wake of the Cuba crisis to the rank of one-star general. Penkovsky had been Varentzov’s combat comrade during WWII and appears to have used this friendship to access secret documents detailing the locations of the Soviet’s nuclear arsenal, the invaluable backgrounding that was passed to the Americans. Accused of “loss of political vigilance”, Sergeevich was stripped of almost all privileges but never formally charged with treason.

Finally, there is Marshal Sergei Semenovich Biryuzov, chairman of the Soviet General  Staff and the boss of both Varentsov and Serov, who is suspected of initiating the unprecedented transfer of that top-secret information as part of the conspiracy to frustrate the Khrushchev’s madcap schemes and provocations. Intriguingly, he would die in a suspicious plane crash the day after Khrushchev’s ouster in October, 1964.

All these years later, two fundamental questions remained unanswered:

  • Why did Khrushchev put those rockets in Cuba in the first place, knowing full well that he could not match America’s nuclear muscle?
  • After learning of the mortal threat in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, why did Kennedy ignore military advice and decline to launch a pre-emptive strike?

Before we attempt to work through the through the muddle of intrigue, let’s establish some facts.

  • Despite impressive achievements in the early days of what came to be known as the Space Race, the USSR did not have the capacity to strike the continental US with nuclear-tipped rockets: there were just five — repeat, five! — intercontinental ballistic missiles available to be launched. Their locations were surrounded by easily identifiable infrastructure, oxygen plants and similar, and vulnerable to US strikes. None of these missiles was in a state of combat readiness, nor had they ever been. In other words, the USSR was able to strike Europe, but not the US.
  • Khrushchev installed in Cuba 154 nuclear warheads which, in theory, could strike the US without warning. The reality was rather different. Each rocket required an extended period of pre-launch preparation, during which every one was vulnerable.
  • Kennedy was  alerted to this Soviet threat by the intelligence and the operating manuals supplied by Penkovsky. The US President  was  thus gifted with priceless inside view of the  details of the procedures and preparation required  for the launch of each of the missile types. He clearly understood that he could destroy these missiles and, further, that he had the luxury of  time to formulate a response to Russian aggression.
  • Because such intelligence was available to him via Penkovsky’s leaks, Kennedy did not strike the Soviet weaponry in Cuba.  He also resisted military advisors’ urging that he knock out those well known nuclear sites inside of the USSR.
  • As Kennedy was blessed to know, the Soviet threats were hollow. When that bluff was called, Khrushchev’s public humiliation and the removal of nuclear weaponry from Cuban became inevitable.

That the world survived without being dotted by mushroom clouds is, ultimately, the work of one man, Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky. Some call him traitor, others a hero. But, like Claus von Stauffenberg, he was certainly a martyr to his beliefs. Like von Stauffenberg, he shared the same fate: executed in short order after his arrest.

None of the above even begins to explain why Khrushchev precipitated the Cuba Crisis in the first place. To find that answer we must look beyond Moscow, Washington and the Caribbean to Europe, most particularly Berlin. The Soviet-controlled eastern half of that divided city was losing one person per minute as residents voted with their feet and decamped to the West. Before the infamous wall went up, fleeing communism was a simple and largely risk-free matter of crossing a line drawn only on maps. East Germany was emptying, losing the most productive strata of its population. The Soviets understood the danger went further than the loss of their captive nation’s best and brightest. As long as East Germans were able to compare at close quarters the functioning of the two systems, the entire Soviet chimera was in danger of evaporating. After all, if many Germans wanted no truck with an alleged workers’ paradise, why shouldn’t Poles and Czechs follow their example?

Grasping the danger of this simple, potentially lethal truth, Khrushchev understood he had to get the Western Allies out of Berlin — indeed, from all of Western Germany — if the Soviet Empire were to survive. His whole idea for promoting a crisis in the Caribbean arose from the hope that Washington and the West would find it expedient to make a trade: Russia would erase the threat it had installed in Cuba if the West were to remove a threat of another kind from Germany. In pursuit of this gambit, he used Soviet space achievements to foster the entirely false belief that he had at his disposal an unlimited supply of intercontinental missiles capable of striking the US.

At the end of the day, Khrushchev did not realise that threats without the substance could easily have prompted a very substantive reaction, as advocated by bomber general Curtis Le May and others.

Hero or villain, Penkovsky averted a global catastrophe and paid dearly for his bravery. For that the modern world remains deeply in his debt.

 A timeline of the Caribbean crisis and the Soviet space achievements

  • 21st August, 1957    –    first successful launch of the Soviet intercontinental missile/rocket,  8K-71.
  • 4th October, 1957   – the same rocket delivered the first man made Earth satellite on the orbit.
  • 3rd November, 1957 – first living creature (a dog named Laika, meaning the Barker)  in space.
  • In a short period of time there were pennants with the Soviet coat of arms, delivered on the Moon surface, the flight around the moon.
  • 17th December, 1957 – creation of the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Soviet Union.
  • 12th April, 1958  – First man in space!
  • 27th November, 1958 – Berlin ultimatum – Get out of Berlin, you, imperialist warmongers, you!
  • 20th April, 1958 –Penkovsky’s first contact with the British intelligence service.
  • 6-7th August, 1961 – Second man in space, 17 orbital turns.
  • 9th August, 1961 – Khrushchev threatens the world with the nuclear charge of more than 100 megatons.
  • 12-13th August, 1961 –  Berlin wall erection.
  • 26th October, 1961 – Berlin crisis
  • 30thOctober 1961 – nuclear test of the charge with the explosive power equivalent of  57millions tones. The Hiroshima bomb was 20 kilotons.
  • 24th May 1962 – Defence Ministry presents the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU (The then name of the Politburo) plan under the code name  Anadyr, detailing an establishment of a nuclear attack force on Cuba directed against the mainland USA. The plan called for the location of the 51st rocket division with its intermediary range (up to 2200km) weaponised nuclear warheads, together with the delivery means and an anti aircraft defence in Cuban territory with the clearly stated aim of threatening the USA. This plan was implemented under the strictest secrecy provisions and required 21thousand goods carriages, 86 cargo vessels, which had to conduct 180 return journeys from the Soviet ports to Cuban ones.
  • 4th October 1962 – The Soviet SS Indigarka  delivers nuclear warheads for the  8-K63 intermediate range missile to the Cuban port Mariel.
  • 14th October 1962 – Americans discover these weapons, demand these weapons to be removed.  He Soviets ignore these messages, then try to reassure Americans that they are mistaken.
  • 22nd October 1962 – US President gives the speech to the nation. The naval blockade of Cuba is declared and enforced.
  • 23rd October 1962 – Khrushchev was fuming in his letter, accusing Americans of piracy, aggression and warmongering, threatening to give a “fitting response” to an “American provocation”.
  • 24th October – The 20 Soviet ships on the way to Cuba turn back.
  • 25th October 1962 – Adlay Stevenson delivers the devastating  rebuke to the Soviets during the UN Security Council emergency meeting, demonstrating the photo evidence to the whole world to see.
  • 26th October 1962– Khrushchev backs down and sends a telegram to Kennedy in which he agrees to remove Russian rockets from Cuba, provided the USA lifts the blockade and promise not to invade the island.
  • 27th October 1962 – Khrushchev sends a letter, in which he demands the removal of the US missiles from Turkey. The US U2 plane is shot down over Cuba. The situation is becoming critical, despite the Khrushchev’s letter. Kennedy in under enormous pressure to launch a preventive strike.  He refuses.
  • 28th October 1962 – Kennedy ignores the follow up letter from Khrushchev as well as a shooting down of the U2 plane. He writes Nikita Khrushchev that the US will not invade Cuba and will lift the blockade if the USSR will dismantle the nuclear bases. Secretly, he promises to dismantle the US missile bases  in Turkey.
  • Had Penkovski not supplied Americans with the data, incontrovertibly (and verifyingly!) proving that the Soviet threat is a bluff, Kennedy would have had no choice but to launch the first strike. The crisis was over. The world had survived.


 Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978


Supporting quotations and their sources.

Why did the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba?

The Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba for two primary reasons: (1) to boost the Soviet Union’s power, threatening the U.S. with nuclear attack from the Caribbean and (2) to bolster the Soviet Union’s bargaining position in its attempts to force West Berlin to join East Germany. Additional reasons included defending Cuba from American invasion and bolstering Soviet prestige.”

Harvard Kennedy School.

Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs. Cuban missile crisis.

Did the Soviets put their nuclear warheads on Cuban soil before the blockade declaration ?

At the time, the CIA reported that they did not believe the nuclear warheads for the missiles had been delivered to Cuba. As I recall, they believed that the first shipment of warheads was aboard the ship Poltava, a ship which was to arrive in Cuba within a few days.”

However, the CIA assessment was wrong and the US Government knew it.  As the quote from the presentation  by Robert Macnamara  in his own words  at the Havana conference in 1992 demonstrates,  the US Government was  painfully aware of the existence of the Soviet nuclear warheads already on the Cuban soil before the blockade imposition, all 162 of them.

These events seemed dangerous at the time. But it wasn’t until nearly thirty years afterward that we learned, from General Gribkov’s testimony at a January 1992 conference here in this room in Havana, that the nuclear warheads for both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had already reached Cuba before the quarantine line was established—162 nuclear warheads in all. If the president had gone ahead with the air strike and invasion of Cuba, the invasion forces almost surely would have been met by nuclear fire, requiring a nuclear response from the United States.”

Arms control association web site. Transcript of Robert Maknamara’s presentation at the Conference on Cuban missile crisis. Havana, January 1992.

Was the intelligence supplied by Oleg Penkovsky of such significance that it allowed US President to resist the pressure to launch the first strike?

“The intelligence supplied by Penkovsky – almost 5,500 exposures on a Minox camera over a period of eighteen months- was of the highest importance. It included up-to-date surveys of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (several thousand fewer than US estimates), the alert stages, checks and firing sequence of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, statistics on missile accuracy and defects revealed in test firing. Penkovsky’s  revelations about increased Soviet reliance on missile and a vast chemical warfare programme led to a major rethink in NATO strategy. At peak periods  , the intelligence provided by Penkovsky, who was run jointly  by  SIS and the CIA , kept busy twenty American and ten British analysts.

Good intelligence in the West  was crucial to the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis before the missiles themselves had been installed.

On 14th of October 1962 a U2 over Cuba  took the first photographs of a ballistic missile site under construction. CIA analysts were able to identify the nature of the sites  because of a top-secret document detailing the stages in missile site construction secretly photographed by Penkovsky… On  16 October the photographs were placed before the President.”

Christopher Andrew, Oleg Gordievsky: “KGB:THE INSIDE STORY” pp.389, 390.

  • Jack Richards

    If this is true, no-one told Robert McNamara. On any number of occasions McNamara has admitted that the USA was completely unaware that any warheads had been delivered to Cuba – and that he didn’t find out until 1998! The Americans believed the warheads were on a ship named the “Poltava” – one of the ships that turned back.

    The placing of missiles on Cuba didn’t have much to do with Berlin – though it had to do with the global confrontation of ideologies. Both Khrushchev and his son and his many biographers attribute the placing of missiles on Cuba as a pay-back for the American missiles in Turkey. It was a “how do you like it?” act; they were paying the Americans in their own coin.

    The American agreement to remove the missiles in Turkey was a secret part of the deal not made public for 30 years.

    If anyone stood up to the “hawks” like Curtis Le May it was Robert Kennedy and it was Robert who talked John out of a first strike. He proclaimed that his brother would not do a Tojo.

    At the time the USA did not have much of a missile offensive capability either. The missiles in Turkey and western Europe were short to medium range. The USA relied on it’s strategic bombers i.e. the B52 and the idea was that they would be able to get a few through Soviet fighter and missile defences and hit some of the major targets.

    I am not at all convinced that Dr Galak knows what he is talking about.

    • Roger Franklin

      Michael Galak responds: I am grateful to Mr.Richards for his comments and happy to respond. The considerations of space prevent me from quoting many more sources, supporting the view I have expressed in the article about the role Oleg Penkovsky played in averting the nuclear catastrophe during the Caribbean crisis.
      In support of his point of view that the West Berlin had nothing to do with the Caribbean crisis, Mr. Richards refers to the testimony of Nikita Khrushchev and his son. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? However, to believe such statements is akin to a declaration by “Doc” Evatt that he believed the reassurances of the Soviet Foreign Minister that the USSR did not have spies in Australia during the Petrov affair.

      In reality, the emptying of the East Germany of people through the West Berlin was threatening the very existence of the Soviet Empire. People were voting with their feet, fleeing the workers’ paradise. West Berlin was a gaping wound in the body of the police state and Khrushchev had to close it by hook or by crook. The example was plain to see – the territories annexed from Finland after the Winter war became depopulated. All inhabitants were able to leave through the poorly guarded border – one and a half million of people! That is the origin of the Soviet missile bluff.

      In the quote from the transcript of Mr. McNamara’s presentation at the Havana conference, he mentions the point of view of the CIA, that the Soviets did not get, in fact, the nuclear warheads to Cuba before the imposition of the maritime blockade by the USA. However, he is quite clear that he, himself, as well as the US Government was aware of the existence of a significant number of such weapons of mass destruction. Quite the opposite, in fact, was true: the Soviets did not have the sufficient numbers of means of delivery but they did have the warheads.

      There is no evidence one way or another that Robert Kennedy knew about the existence of an intelligence supplied by Penkovsky. His influence on his brother, in effect, was counterproductive, because he was used as a conduit for disinformation transmission to the President by the KGB spy , Georgy Bolshakov, posing as a Soviet correspondent. The Soviet aim was to play for time until all the missiles were in place.

      I thank Mr.Richards for his interest again and , as the Beatles once declared from the London rooftop – I hope I passed an audition.

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com

    The article and the comment following it constitute an excellent illustration of the multifarious interpretations of history. How on Earth could mere mortals know what to believe?

  • Jack Richards

    Your response is unconvincing. Evatt was a fool in everyone’s estimation. He was also an intellectual of the post-Revolutionary period of the 20s and 30s and was imbued with Marxist ideology – as many were – and had swallowed Stalinist propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    The exodus from East Germany into West Berlin is as you say. But that had no bearing on the placing of missiles in Cuba which were placed there at the invitation of Fidel Castro. The Revolutionaries in Cuba and Latin America generally had very different motivations from the events unfolding in Europe and the Soviets saw an opportunity of demonstrating “solidarity” without any real intent to do much more than give the USA a “pay back”. Castro was quite prepared to have Cuba wiped off the map and pleaded with Khrushchev to launch a first strike. It would seem that in the rarefied atmosphere of 1962 Castro believed that the sacrifice of Cuba would be a great boost to the anti-American cause. Thankfully, Khrushchev had more sense and realised that he had far more to lose than Castro and a propaganda victory wasn’t worth a nuclear war the Soviet Union was certain to lose. Unlike Castro, Khrushchev had actually witnessed the worst war could deliver during his time as Commissar overseeing the disastrous Kharkov offensive and the cruelty of Stalingrad. Nikita had no illusions about the possible horrors of a nuclear war while Castro had never witnessed anything much more than a skirmish with small arms and had no real concept of what would happen. Nikita also knew that the USA was not bluffing and really would go to war the moment a missile lifted off from Cuba.

    Had the Kennedy administration actually known that there were warheads on Cuba and attached to tactical, short range and medium range weapons, then they would have launched a massive pre-emptive strike. The fact that they didn’t is proved by the fact that their Navy was a sitting duck for tactical weapons as were their troop concentrations. They would never have deployed as they did if they’d had the slightest suspicion that the warheads had already been delivered as it would have been suicide.

    As McNamara has stated, both the USA and the USSR “lucked out” and WW3 was only narrowly averted. Nikita was overthrown the following year not because he’d backed down but because he’d been fool enough to do it in the first place.

    @ Bill Martin. The interpretation of history is a mine field, that’s for sure. Vyshinsky has every reason to lie to Evatt but Khrushchev had no reason to lie about Cuba in his memoirs and neither did Robert McNamara.

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